Most of the important astronomers and natural philosophers (as well as artists) in the 16th and 17th centuries depended on the patronage of powerful religious or political figures to fund their work. Patronage networks extended all the way from Emperors and Popes to regional nobles to artisans to peasants; even university positions were based to some extent on patronage. Scholarly careers in this period were driven by patronage, often starting in undistinguished universities or local schools or courts, and traveling closer or farther from centers of power as their fortunes rose and fell.Today most scientists have salaried positions at universities and get funded by the government but with sequestration and budget cuts, scientists have to seek out other sources, such as industrial funds. We've long had various scholarships endowed by private donors: Sloan, Packard, MacArthur. Recently though we've seen some new patrons, the upper 1%, who want to help out where other funds are limited. Some of these work through endowed positions at universities, but we also see some who create foundations dedicated to funding directed at research.
In the past few months I came face-to-face, or at least in the same room, as two of them: Landon Clay in Oxford for the opening of the new Maths Institute partially funded by his foundation and Jim Simons, when I visited Stony Brook and had lunch in the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. The Clay Mathematics Institute funds several mathematicians and offers the million dollar bounty on P v NP and other open questions. The Simons Foundation supports a few theoretical computer scientists, not to mention the Simons Institute in Berkeley.
Of course the more money coming into our field, the more research we can do. But patronage does have its other side.
Patronage, and the desire for more, also shaped the work and publications of scientists. Effusive dedications to current or potential patrons can be found in almost every scholarly publication, while the interests of a patron in a specific topic was a strong incentive to pursue said topic—or reframe one's work in terms of it. Galileo, for example, first presented the telescope as a naval instrument to military- and commerce-focused Republic of Venice; when he sought the more prestigious patronage of the Medici court in Florence, he instead promoted the astronomical potential of the device (by naming the moons of Jupiter after the Medicis).How much do the lessons of the 16-17th centuries still apply today?