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Gilded Age Science

Science in the US is experiencing a type of Gilded Age, as super wealthy philanthropists have been pumping bigger jolts of money into research just as federal funding appears to have flatlined, but the history of privately funded American science is at least a century old.

Of course, private funders are free to focus their monies on problems that specifically interest them, if they choose, The Atlantic reports, and there has been a trend toward funding focused on particular pet areas.

The $100 million that Eli and Edith Broad gave to the Broad Institute last year, for example, is part of a continuum of big time R&D support dating back to Andrew Carnegie, as Maribel Morey recounts.

Carnegie not only funded private research institutions that would have a liberal scope of interests and would be independent, such as the Carnegie Institution, but also partnered with government to develop the National Research Council.

"Unlike their early-20th-century predecessors, for example, philanthropists today are targeting particular fields themselves and bypassing traditional intermediaries such as trustees, federal actors, and research experts," Morey says.

Jonathan and Mindy Gray, for example, have given $30 million to the University of Pennsylvania, their alma mater, for a cancer research center, in part in tribute to Gray's sister, who died from ovarian cancer.

Dodging federal bureaucracy and other intermediaries can help speed research along, but some of those intermediaries can help in decision-making and can provide a "democratizing element" that ensures that all Americans, not just the wealthiest of the wealthy, can "have a say in the course and development of American science," she writes.