Facebook’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan just announced a 3 billion dollar donation to assemble a scientific ‘dream-team’ tasked with “eliminating, curing or preventing disease by the end of the century.” Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University and a scientific superstar, has been named president of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and top scientists such as Harold Varmus, former director of the National Cancer Institute and Nobel laureate, have been recruited to serve on the scientific advisory board. The endeavor is somewhat reminiscent of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, a foundation that has achieved much that is admirable, but it may not be the ideal model to follow for Zuckerberg’s initiative. Is another billionaire funded science foundation really the best way to advance science?
The top funder of basic science in the United States is the US government, which allocates funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH’s 2017 budget has been approved at 34.1 billion dollars, over 10 times the amount pledged by Zuckerberg over a 10-year period. NIH funding is the cornerstone of American science and supports research from cancer therapeutics and space exploration to climate change and everything in between. It is used to finance research at hundreds of institutions, supports thousands of laboratories and helps secure employment for countless researchers. Silicon Valley and the tech sector in general would not be the same, or would likely not exist, if research at places like Stanford, MIT, Berkeley and all the other great scientific institutions, was not supported by the NIH. Zuckerberg seems to think that new tools cannot be developed with small funding, stating that “most science funding today is small grants less than a few hundred thousands of dollars. This may help pay for scientists’ salaries or part of a lab, but it’s not enough to do major tool development.” Let us remember that the NIH played a critical role in sequencing the first human genome, which required development of highly sophisticated new “tools”, and in developing CRISPR/Cas9 technology for gene editing, in part financed by NIH grants. These are just two of many recent projects to counter Zuckerberg’s point.
From 2003 to 2015, the NIH budget lost 22 percent of its capacity to fund research, and even with the 2017 increase, pre-sequestration levels have barely been reached. This fact highlights the remaining constraints on NIH financed endeavors focused on “eliminating, curing or preventing disease by the end of the century.” Instead of creating a new entity a la Bill Gates, which certainly has PR appeal (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has not hurt the public perception of Bill Gates and Microsoft, a fact surely not lost on Mr. Zuckerberg), why not improve and support the institutions that we have? Instead of looking at Bill Gates, consider the work of another multi-billionaire, David Koch.
David Koch is one of the infamous Koch brothers, who, for years, has used his wealth to alter the political landscape according to his agenda. Theda Skocpol of Harvard University and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University seem to think that he has been quite successful in doing so, concluding that “the Koch network has succeeded in pulling Republican Party candidates and officeholders toward extreme and unpopular economic positions.” Unpopular to those unfortunate enough to not be Koch Industry shareholders.
You may wonder how this relates to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Simple: the NIH budget has to be approved by Congress and the members of Congress have to campaign and be elected. As of 2015, only two members of the 114th United States Congress, which is composed of 541 elected officials, are scientists. The problem goes deeper, as epitomized by the existence of the current chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Lamar S. Smith, a non-scientist who has received over $600,000 from the Oil and Gas industry and who is known to regularly harass climate scientists. It would be deeply problematic, and unethical, for the NIH to allocate its own funding to alter the congressional landscape and campaign against individuals like Lamar Smith. However, private citizens, like Mark Zuckerberg, could and should use their wealth to help change the attitude towards science in statehouses and in Congress, by campaigning against enemies of science (such as Lamar Smith), by supporting candidates that believe in the scientific process and by improving the state of the NIH. It is time to use wealth to strategically promote science throughout the hallowed halls of Congress, the way the Koch brothers have used their wealth to promote “unpopular economic positions.”
Hopefully the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will achieve great things, just as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has. However, let us not forget that science is not immune to politics and that careful retooling of existing institutions may be more effective than creating another science foundation. Financing a foundation with the noble and apolitical goal of eliminating disease is, at a minimum, a great PR stunt (irrespective of eventual success), and it does not run the risk of turning Zuckerberg into the next George Soros, a very polarizing individual indeed. None of that should matter if the bottom line for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is to truly have a shot at curing disease.