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Special Initiative: New science out of the box

Realizing that the university does not have a monopoly on basic knowledge, I felt free to seek alternative ways to fund my research.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m a runaway brain, my pleasure. There is no girl, witch, or moral in this story. I’m someone who comments from afar, without having to “do” with this conversation about how the flag is being rebuilt in Brazil. But by far I do science, and science is politics.

The United States, the country in which I work, has been exploring an alternative model of scientific funding, with funding from the private sector and external government funding agencies.

If that comforts those who read, I share with researchers in Brazil the difficulty of seeking subsidies from US national agencies. The model that began in good faith (all proposals are examined by a panel of researchers), today has the effect of limiting scientific innovation. Conceived as reputable, but populated by humans, the stalls reflect prejudice, collusion, and stupid utilitarianism (“money is well spent only on research that leads to positive results, and in the short term”). Sometimes, interdisciplinary proposals have to satisfy two different boards. Thus, the old guard gradually asserts and punishes science.

Three Nobel Laureates gave an interview in which they said that, given the prevailing climate of scientific promotion, they would not currently be able to do the work that bestowed them with such honor (if you were to Google it, they are Harroch, Weiss, and Higgs). Regarding second thought, I don’t know if this is a new discussion: in 1789 (!), Schiller, the German poet, gave a master class comparing the “breadwinner world” to the “philosophically-minded world”. The first – I’m sure you know one – is fed on fame and wants to stick to the status quo Because modernity threatens their privileges; The second species, an endangered species of the early eighteenth century, reveals an unexpected extent of their knowledge (“they have more love of truth than love of their systems”).

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I’m beginning to think my argument is more general and cyclical than I thought. That is: the private initiative has, for a long time, made possible technological leaps that, once established, will likely branch out with government funding.

The private initiative has, for a long time, made technological leaps possible, once established, perhaps branching out, with government funding.

Let’s take a look at the supporting evidence. Special projects gave us the Renaissance – just remember the Medici family, who were the patrons of all Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Special projects gave us classical mechanics and thermodynamics – from Newton to self-financing English aristocracy. Special projects have given us high-energy physics — as detailed in the book “Tuxedo Park,” which tells the story of Alfred Lee Loomis, the man who made his fortune in a 1929 accident and began funding scientists like Orlando Lawrence, who then built the first particle accelerator. In the famous Bell Laboratories, a product of the late Bell telephone monopoly, the laser, the transistor, the Unix operating system, radio astronomy, important programming languages… were born from this impressive innovation. Sometimes it takes a stranger. It took a wealthy modern like Musk to develop a reusable rocket. NASA’s dental manufacturing infrastructure didn’t work, didn’t try — I don’t know, don’t care: glory to SpaceX. Recently, the private sector gave us an mRNA vaccine against covid-19 — after decades of academic ostracism ruled Katalin Kariko, the Hungarian biochemist whose discoveries were central to the development of the immune system. It’s a heart-wrenching and heartbreaking story, told vicariously through the scientist’s Wikipedia page: she received no recognition during her lifetime – until 2020, and since then has received over 50 awards!

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Recently, private foundations have appeared in the United States that continuously and long-term support University scholarly elite (too poorly chosen by no less policy and transactional processes than those on newsstands at funding agencies). The Howard Hughes Medical Institute pays its members a stipend of over $1 million annually to be spent “freely”. The new Arc Institute will provide unlimited funds to fund research for its affiliates. In my opinion, as a recognized scientist with envy, I believe this treats adults like adults: it gives a vote of confidence to those scientists, who know what they are talking about, and who know how much money it takes to do good research.

On the other hand, other private institutions cause a college exodus with a promise, in essence, to recreate new Bell Laboratories. One successful example is Arcadia Science, which raised $500 million to set up and operate it for a decade, in which time they hope to maintain themselves, in a scientific model for profit, already. Arcadia is led by young Seemay Chou and Prachee Avasthi, two former biology professors working with unusual model organisms (like ticks and green algae), who are simply tired of being ignored by the National Institutes of Health (whose rat research mostly gives grants).

Realizing that the university does not have a monopoly on basic knowledge, I felt free to seek alternative means of funding my own research, which is borderline. I am convinced that the time spent on this effort will pay off more than if I tried to integrate into a cast iron system. I hope researchers in Brazil will be encouraged to do the same, and I hope the agents who enable this type of funding are clear about the impact this could have on science in the country. In addition to Serrapilheira and Ciência Pioneira from Instituto D’Or, there should be many other empowering agents: Hello, banks, crypto investors, business leaders!

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In short, a new science is being made out of the box. This is done through private initiative, this is done with the long term in mind, it is done by granting autonomy to the researcher.

Clarice D Professor and researcher in the field of quantum biology. This opinion piece was written for the #scienceinelections campaign celebrating Science Month. We thank the columnists who in July gave up their space to think about how science could be involved in reconstruction Brazil.

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