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Are Billionaires Buying Science?

A lot of billionaires seem to be stepping up to the plate lately to donate money to solve a scientific challenge that has along been plaguing the world, according to New Scientist. So what could go wrong?

Gone are the days when the wealthy would write a check and be content with getting college buildings named after them, New Scientist says. Now, the billionaires are practicing what the article calls "venture philanthropy, modelled after the venture capital that funds Silicon Valley tech firms." In other words, the funders set time limits, project goals, and involve themselves in the scientific process.

New Scientist cites the recent example of Napster founder Sean Parker who founded a $250 million institute for cancer immunotherapy. And there's Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's pledge to donate 99 percent of his Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

But while the money is welcome, the article notes, the influence that comes with it can create challenges of its own. New Scientist quotes MIT's Fiona Murray who says these tycoon-funded projects can be myopic in focus as they lack the wider view of scientific research that government agencies tend to take. For instance, the government already has a Cancer Moonshot program, announced months before Parker's foundation was started. "Do we need that many things about cancer?" says Murray. "Maybe we need to focus on other diseases, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's. Are we focusing enough on woman's health issues, which often don't get the same amount of time and attention?"

And the fact that billionaires tend to be white men narrows the focus even further, the article adds. Add to that what New Scientist calls "Silicon Valley's slick PR machines," and there's also the danger that the public may get the wrong idea about how easy it would be to solve a certain problem, if only governments would get out of the way. 

Ultimately, Murray tells New Scientist, both governments and billionaires "need to examine how we allocate funding, and the degree to which we make good or bad choices."

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