Grand Ambitions But Tricky Terrrain for the Chan and Zuckerberg Science Initiative

With the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s admirable $3 billion commitment, the couple has entered a massive and complex arena. One of many players, its impact will hinge on how effectively it can collaborate with others. 

There is a lot to be said about Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s big dive into science giving—an endeavor to support basic science research with the aim to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century, starting with more than $3 billion committed over the next decade. 

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First and foremost, devoting that kind of money to curing disease in this way is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, while the goal is pretty outrageous (more on that later), the timeframe they’ve committed to shows that they have an understanding of the time basic research takes. The initiative’s president Cori Bargmann cited that long view as a big reason she signed on.  

That, combined with the fact that the commitment is going to basic science research (as opposed to research on specific applications), shows they appreciate the importance of steady progress in our fundamental understanding of biology. 

As Science Philanthropy Alliance President Marc Kastner said in his statement praising the announcement, “this is the area of science where sustained support most often results in new knowledge that helps.”

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More funding and freedom for researchers to pursue basic science over the long haul is absolutely needed, and this move will help by backing just that. 

But a lot of people have made remarks, whether cynical or pragmatic, about what the initiative will truly be able to accomplish, and why they started something new instead of supporting existing efforts. Zuckerberg and Chan have, after all, wandered into an expansive and complex field, taking a major risk of duplicating efforts and overpromising on what they can accomplish.

Other recent medical research initiatives by billionaire philanthropists Sean Parker and Patrick Soon-Shiong have raised similar concerns. As more wealthy and ambitious givers enter biomedical research, each determined to forge their own innovative path to new breakthroughs, this terrain could become increasingly crowded, and not in a good way. It might be better if more donors thought like Ted Stanley, who gave over $800 million to the Broad Institute as opposed to starting up his own thing. In the case of Chan and Zuckerberg, we'd be interested to know what convinced them that pumping new money into existing impressive places like Broad and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute wouldn't achieve their desired results.

As for overpromising, it's important to point out that, although $3 billion over 10 years is a lot of money, it’s really not that much in terms of other funding for health research, particularly from government. Many have pointed out that the NIH spends 10 times that in just one year. NBC News did a pretty good roundup of other figures, including that HHMI has given $8 billion over 10 years, and the UK’s Wellcome Trust has committed to spending $1.3 billion a year over the next five years for similar pursuits. Then there is private industry. The pharma giant Johnson and Johnson alone spent $9 billion on R&D in 2015. Pfizer spends nearly as much.

This is to say it's important to keep in mind that CZI is just a new player among many, and not the largest.

So while even a lot of researchers have applauded the “cure all disease” goal for its audacity and optimism, it's a bit hubristic—this young billionaire couple setting out to solve such a massive and complicated problem. Scientific discovery is a slow process that happens in small, incremental steps. And disease is not just a science and engineering problem either, with deep roots in poverty and inequality. So yes the money is needed, but let's maintain some perspective on the part this new initiative is going to play. 

Zuckerberg has come under fire for that kind of hubris before, especially for his early, large-scale foray into the complicated terrain of K-12 education with a $100 million donation to improve Newark schools. While things have worked out better than many critics think, this episode has otherwise become a case study of a naive philanthropist taking a top-down approach to a nuanced problem he doesn’t understand. 

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We don’t need to flog Zuckerberg for his Newark mistakes the rest of his philanthropic life, but it casts a certain light on the new initiative, especially when it sets out on such a brazen goal. 

All that said, there are signs that this new endeavor is headed in a better direction. 

For one, Zuckerberg and Chan spent a couple of years consulting with scientists and science grantmakers, including the Science Philanthropy Alliance’s Kastner, the Sloan Foundation, and leaders at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The first step of the initiative will be establishing a “Biohub,” an open access research center that will pool efforts from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and Stanford scientists. 

The three main stated components of the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative are also encouraging: fostering collaboration between scientists and engineers, building tools and technology for researchers worldwide, and encouraging governments and donors to give more.  

These are great roles for philanthropy. All three, inspiring more funding in particular, present potential for CZI to have an impact much bigger and more profound than its own billions. 

Of course, they are also roles that many other funders currently play. And collaboration is not always easy. This only underscores how important it will be, as this new initiative gets on its feet, not so much to “disrupt” health research, but to collaborate, facilitate and fill gaps for work already happening around the world, and then inspire others to kick in.