There is a fascinating article about Craig Venter at Salon right now. His autobiography, A Life Decoded has just been released and the articles talks, not only about the book, but about how new science is being organized and funded. Unfortunately, I think the article has it completely wrong. The author argues that 20th century science, which saw a dramatic increase in the tenured professoriate was a response to the 19th century "gentleman professor" -- that "professionalized specialization was a necessary mechanism for processing the bounty of 19th century discovery". The author goes on to conclude that the new entrepreneurial scientists are an appropriate return to the tradition of independent scientists of the past. I think its actually more subtle and problematic.
I think the 20th century saw a dedication to public investment in the common good. This was partly driven by the pre-eminence of the nation-state, based on the military experiences of the two world wars and creation of superweapons (ie, nukes and ICBMs). Partly, it was also driven by the interaction of organized labor and industrialized production, which produced a unique democratization of distribution of wealth. Wealth was never more evenly distributed than a very brief period between the 50s and the 70s. This is what resulted in investment in public knowledge creation.
What we're seeing now is a return to the patron model where you have to be either super-rich or funded by the super-rich in order to engage in knowledge construction. The ranks of tenured professors are dying off and being increasingly replaced by freeway faculty. Its a disaster for a public agenda of research to benefit the common good. It's all very romantic to hearken back to the days of gentleman scientists, but you might as well idealize feudalism -- its the same thing.