Donating to Science—Their Own!

  • Prosperity
  • 2005

Harald Hess and Eric Betzig are both brilliant physicists. But both hate running in a bureaucratic herd, and both have a deep aversion to the timid, bureaucratic mechanisms that dole out government science funding. Betzig got so sick of the paper shuffling that he quit academic research, becoming a househusband for a while, then going to work at his dad’s machine-tool company in Michigan, manufacturing and selling parts for the auto industry. Around that same time, his friend Harald Hess also quit his job, for many of the same reasons, to move to a small startup business.

Eventually, Hess’s enterprise was bought out, and Betzig realized he wasn’t a good enough salesman to work in business. So the two friends began to take long walks together, discussing how they might get back into high science, without having to rely on government grant money (the thought of which “created nausea for both of us,” according to Hess).

They eventually came up with a new concept for a super-high-resolution microscope that could look deep into cells at the molecular level. The stumbling block was funding. Without grants from the NIH or other agency, who would pay for this microscope? The two men eventually decided to self-fund the project by putting up $25,000 each from their retirement savings. They essentially became science donors to their own project.

They set up a lab in Hess’s condominium in San Diego, and within a couple months they had created the first Photo-Activated Localization Microscope, right there in Harald’s living room. This device established Eric Betzig and Harald Hess as leaders at a new scientific frontier. It won them each directorship of a lab at Janelia Research Campus, the advanced bio-med facility created by one of today’s most effective medical philanthropies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

And in 2014, the scientific breakthroughs produced by these self-donated gifts from Hess and Betzig earned Eric Betzig the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

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