The New York Times recently reported David H. Koch has pledged more than $100 million to the newly opened David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at M.I.T. The piece framed the center's benefactor as a magnanimous power broker who draws the political line at denying funding for medical research.
But what on the surface appears to be selfless generosity is dampened by his other donations and actions that have led to drying up critical government funds that help many Americans heal from devastating diseases.
"David Koch has supported MIT generously over many decades," gushed MIT President Susan Hockfield in a press release announcing the opening of the new research center. She added, "and in this project he has been a true partner. I am grateful not only for his generosity, but also for the passion and insight he has brought to this ambitious undertaking." Additionally, the Times article noted that the politically active industrialist had previously donated another $100 million to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. These donations aren't insignificant and will help some people.
But many Americans rely on help from the National Institutes of Health, which Republicans are targeting for budget cuts. While Koch recently went on record publicly bemoaning Congress's $1.6 billion cut to the NIH budget, the sincerity of such regret must be viewed with skepticism.
NIH's role in medical research cannot be overstated. This one governmental agency provides for more than 28 percent of the nation's basic medical research, including a significant portion dedicated to the cutting edge biomedical field -- stem cell and gene therapy research, for example. Beyond fighting cancer, NIH-funded research seeks cures and treatments to a whole host of diseases and disabilities such as Alzheimer's disease, juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. (I suffer from the limb-girdle variant.)
David Koch's words and generosity must be must be weighed against the proposed cut to the NIH budget. After all, he and his brother Charles promoted support for the very Tea Party theatrics that was so instrumental in creating the present atmosphere of fanatical austerity. Beyond that, they enabled the election of many of the very conservatives who intend on slashing the NIH budget (Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, for example). They espouse many of the same libertarian dogmas of smaller government. And they will do so even if it delays the development of cures for many of our fellow citizens.
Whatever one thinks of David Koch, it cannot be said that he is not a smart man. Both he and his brother parlayed their massive wealth into a machine that effectively created a political climate highly favorable to their business interests. But in the pursuit of their small government utopia, David Koch had to have known the NIH funding would be a ripe target for those in Congress they've empowered. And while Koch can direct part of his private fortune to areas of medical research that will suffer from the blade of the GOP budget ax, most ordinary, less powerful Americans who suffer from a disease different than cancer -- myself included -- do not have the financial wherewithal to make up for lost NIH research investment. Instead, we rely on the government to help us heal.
What David Koch has essentially done is to make medical research far less democratic. If you suffer from cancer as he does, then you too may benefit from the science he privately funds. If you don't, too bad. It is nothing less than trickle-down economics morphing into trickle-down medical research.
Indeed, the direction and largess of David Koch's donations do more to disprove the libertarian mantra that private and social interests always coincide. A truly magnanimous donor would have given these gifts without endangering the chances of others to be treated for their medical afflictions.
Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.