The United Kingdom's science minister, David Willetts, thinks that private and international investments can help establish the UK as a world leader in scientific and technological research. But is Willett's plan really feasible? And if it is, is it one the United States could utilize as well?

The Guardian reported yesterday that the UK government wants to encourage "the formation of a new class of university" — a consortium of privately funded academic institutions that would make the UK the "best place in the world to do science" by placing unprecedented emphasis on science, technology, and postgraduate training. (Read the article here.)

The central tenet of this plan, which was outlined yesterday by Willetts at the Policy Exchange thinktank, is that these institutions would be privately funded; unlike, for example, the American Museum of Natural History's new Master of Arts program in science teaching (which is funded both by the National Science Foundation as well as New York State), these scientific training grounds would look to non-governmental entities for considerable sums of money. "There will be no additional government funding," said Willetts. "This time we will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates."

There is no question that the United States, like the UK, is facing budgetary restrictions that threaten to impede its continued scientific development. Public funds are already limited, and the recent failure by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach an agreement — which triggered a 1.2-trillion dollar, across-the-board budget-slashing measure that will go into effect in 2013 — has placed the future of America's reputation as a leading scientific entity on even rockier terrain. When we spoke with Michael Lubell, head of public affairs with the American Physical Society, about what sort of impact 2013's automatic cuts would have on science, he said that they would send a clear message — not just to up and coming scientists, but the rest of the world — that says: "if you want to be a scientist, you might as well look at other countries."

So here's the big question: could Willetts' plan to fuel scientific progress with private investment serve as a viable alternative to (or — perhaps more accurately — a viable supplement to) publicly funded science? And would such an academic model be sustainable here in the US?


Private funding organizations like Howard Hughes Medical Institute — one of the largest (if not the largest) private funding organizations for biomedical research in the US — have been largely successful here in the states. HHMI, for one, tends to drive some of the country's most innovate research.

More and more American universities have also been turning to industry to make up for recent slumps in governmental science-funding. Last month, the University of Minnesota unveiled an initiative that would make it easier for businesses to invest in research by doing away with the state's "rigid approach" to guarding intellectual property.

But even with industry investments in research on the rise, educational institutions here in the US, as well as overseas, still have considerable quantities of ground to cover. Consider, for example, that HHMI's investment in research (which, over the last five years, has totaled over 4 billion dollars), while sizable, pales in comparison next to, say, the NIH — which received over 30 billion dollars in federal funding during the 2011 fiscal year, alone. These numbers imply that both the UK and the US would require an unprecedented showing from the private sector to make Willetts' breed of scientific institution a reality.

Images via Shutterstock