By Paul Temple
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when “millionaire” was used to describe someone who was almost unimaginably rich. Then, sometime towards the end of the last century, “billionaire” took its place – a reflection, probably, of both inflation and increasing disparities of wealth. Now, in America, being a billionaire is no big deal (540 of them, apparently) – you have to be a multibillionaire for people to take notice. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon boss, is worth $100bn. Globally, the top 1% own as much as the remaining 99%. (SRHE members need to tread a little carefully here: you may not feel like a master or mistress of the universe, but if you own most of the equity in a modest house in south-east England and have a decent-sized USS pension pot, then welcome to the 1% global elite.)
Jim Simons is the retired boss of a Wall Street hedge fund called Renaissance: his annual income from it is $1.6bn – yes, “income”, yes, “billion”. The private jet, the ocean-going yacht, the Long Island mansion, and so on, hardly dent wealth on this scale, so he’s done what the American super-rich are increasingly doing: set up his own research institute. (And wouldn’t we all like to have that conversation with our Vice-Chancellor?) Larry Ellison, of Oracle, has got one working on the biology of ageing; Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, has an institute doing brain research; and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s chosen field is ocean science. Simons was a serious mathematician before he made his money on Wall Street, so his institute, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (where else?), is about computational science, looking for patterns in data from biology, astronomy, and quantum physics, produced in labs elsewhere that haven’t got the capacity to process it properly.
According to D T Max, writing in The New Yorker magazine last December (from where my information about these American developments is drawn), in 2015, for the first time since 1945, private funding of basic research in America overtook public funding: not private funding for applied work with commercial potential, but for pure science. Max quotes various US academics to the effect that this is all terrible: “Private foundations are a plutocratic exercise of power that’s unaccountable, nontransparent, donor-directed and generously tax-subsidized…their charities reflect their values, without necessarily helping ordinary… citizens.”
Well, yes, but. If you’ve ever been involved in trying to obtain funding from a research council or other similar body, you might not have concluded that public funding of research is necessarily some kind of perfectly calibrated mechanism designed to give the correct amounts of funding to objectively-assessed projects. As SRHE member Lyn Grove has shown, researchers in the UK are driven to deploy a range of strategies (to use a polite term) in attempts to align what they perceive as the good research they want to do with funders’ ever-changing priorities – “impact” merely being the latest obstacle to be circumvented. In such circumstances, you might not be too bothered by a private foundation exercising unaccountable power if it funds the work that you want to do, and believe to be important. Yes, they do reflect the values of their rich founders – but public bodies have to reflect political priorities, which in practice mean ministerial prejudices. The ESRC’s current priorities include climate change, productivity, and “being in a digital age”: nothing wrong with them as far as I’m concerned, but they were obviously selected from a far wider range of possibilities. Did the selection process involve the sprinkling of some democratic fairy-dust that made it superior in terms of knowledge production to Jim Simons saying he fancied a bit of computational quantum physics? Moreover, as Lyn Grove also showed, getting long-term funding, even at quite modest levels, is next-to impossible from UK public sources. Simons’ institute takes a fifty-year time horizon.
Another complaint is that the private institutes pay such high salaries that universities can’t compete: “It shows what a lot of people suspected, which is that the wealthy play by their own rules…we’re just visiting their world”, says another of Max’s critical voices from academia. Well, again, yes, but. It’s a little strange for an academic to argue that it’s wrong for a fellow academic’s skills to be valued by buyers with plenty of money, but OK if the rate is set by university buyers with less money. Still, so far as research into higher education goes, I don’t think that this is a problem that’s going to cause us sleepless nights just yet. But we can always hope.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.