By Lori Solomon, Editor, Diagnostic Testing & Emerging Technologies
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg grabbed headlines this week because of the letter he and his wife wrote to their newborn daughter announcing they will give 99 percent of their Facebook shares (currently valued at about $45 billion) to form the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The philanthropy will initially focus on curing disease, personalized learning, connecting people, and building strong communities.
"As technology accelerates, we have a real shot at preventing, curing or managing all or most of the rest [of disease] in the next 100 years. . . . We collectively have a responsibility to tilt our investments a bit more towards the future to make this reality," Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, M.D., wrote.
It is unknown how much of the Zuckerberg money will go towards medical research and priorities within the field, but people are already debating the potential impact of Zuckerberg’s philanthropy. For perspective, all medical research donations from foundations and individuals total under $4 billion a year, according to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a group that works to increase private giving for research. By comparison, federal agencies (Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation) grant $60 billion a year.
“No matter how large the philanthropic resources are, they don’t come close to what we as a nation spend on research, nor should it or could it,” Eric Lander, a Human Genome Researcher and adviser to President Obama’s Precision Medicine initiative, told STAT, a health publication of the Boston Globe Media group. “It cannot quantitatively substitute for public investment.”
In the area of medical research, experts say that large gifts can fill gaps in federal funding, jumpstart new areas of research, and support younger scientists who may not have a large enough grant pipeline. Experts say that, traditionally, federal taxpayer money funds basic science research, while private money has been used to expedite translational research or fund orphan disease research.
Scientific and medical gifts Chan and Zuckerberg previously made include the establishment of the “Breakthrough Prizes” in 2012, which are annual $3 million prizes for physics, life sciences, and mathematics. They also donated $25 million last year to the CDC Foundation, independent nonprofit partner of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to fund Ebola research.
Zuckerberg is not alone in contributing vast sums of private wealth for medical research. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy the top three science gifts in 2014 included:
- Theodore Stanley’s $650 million pledge to the Broad Institute to fund work in the genetics of mental illness.
- T. Denny Sanford gave $125 million to the Sanford Health consortium to fund personalized medicine and genetic profiling of every patient.
- Ernest and Evelyn Rady gave $120 million to fund pediatric genomics research at Rady Children’s Hospital.
For those looking for clues as to Zuckerberg’s philanthropic strategy he offered this in the letter to his daughter.
- We must make long term investments over 25, 50 or even 100 years.
- We must back the strongest and most independent leaders in each field.
- We must take risks today to learn lessons for tomorrow.