The Zuckerberg Chan Initiative Isn’t as Crazy as It Sounds

Why the couple wants to give away $3 billion to “cure all diseases”

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan  (Jeff Chiu / AP)

In a world where tech billionaires have eponymous charities to cure allergies, cancer, and infectious diseases, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 billion announcement yesterday can seem like the endgame of one-upmanship. Oh, you’re going to cure some diseases? We at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative going to cure ALL diseases. By the end of the century, natch.

The cynics among us are already eyerolling.

But here’s another way to think about it: Zuckerberg and Chan aren’t trying to cure the hundreds of diseases out there—at least not in the way that charities focused on a single disease typically do. Rather than funding direct cures, the initiative will fund basic science research, asking questions like how cells divide or how proteins fold. Questions that are far removed from a hospital room but could eventually lead to fundamental breakthroughs.

This makes the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative less like a typical disease-focused charity than like a smaller, perhaps more nimble National Institutes of Health—the government behemoth that funds most basic biomedical research in the U.S.

And the NIH could use some help these days. Funding for the agency has flatlined for most of the past decade. Ask a scientist, and you’ll likely hear the same story: It’s harder to get funding, harder to find faculty jobs, and harder, ultimately, just to do science. A 6 percent budget increase this year—the biggest in a decade—was cause for celebration.

In the announcement yesterday, livestreamed on Facebook, naturally, Chan and Zuckerberg said they had talked to dozens of scientists, from Nobel prize winners to grad students, to figure out where they could make a difference. NIH director Francis Collins was among those they consulted, and the mission of his agency seems to have resonated.

“Most philanthropic efforts are rather targeted toward specific diseases that the philanthropist is interested in,” Collins had told STAT last year, when Chan and Zuckerberg first signaled their interest in biomedical research. “It’s unusual for philanthropy to support a lot of basic science, and yet the future of everything we hope to see happen in medical research depends upon a vigorous agenda in the basic arena. That’s where the government is really very important in the effort.” Now the Chan and Zuckerberg have swooped in with $3 billion dedicated entirely to basic research.

The NIH would never put it this way, but its implicit mission is also to cure all diseases, eventually. (Its mission statement is not so quotable: “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”)

I don’t want to overstate the comparison. The NIH spends about $30 billion a year, just over half of it going to basic research in the biomedical sciences. Chan and Zuckerberg’s commitment of $3 billion over a decade comes out each year to just 2 percent of what the NIH devotes to basic research. Still, that 2 percent ($300 million) means a lot more grants and a lot more funded projects each year.

The bigger question is how. It’s easy to give away money when you’re a billionaire, but it’s hard to figure out who deserves it, especially when evaluating projects from a broad swath of biomedical sciences. The NIH has hundreds of staff who spend their entire days reading applications. I asked the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for more details about the application, but didn’t get answers.

So far, it has announced a “BioHub” bringing together Berkeley, Stanford, and University of California San Francisco researchers in two main projects: infectious diseases and a cell atlas tracing how cells develop in the human body. It has brought on big names like Cori Bargmann, the esteemed scientist who most recently ran Obama’s BRAIN initiative and is now president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Through the lens of politics, basic science is an easy punching bag for members of Congress who want to trim budgets (cf. Senator Jeff Flake’s Wastebook: The Farce Awakens, a true doozy of a PDF). But as absurd and obscure as individual projects may sound, they can have surprising consequences. Take the examples of two cancer drugs, bortezomib and cisplatin: The first came out of research into how cells get rid of cellular debris and the second from scientists monkeying around with bacteria growing in electric fields.

Talking about curing all diseases by the year 2100 is quotable, if dumb. But talking about cellular debris doesn’t make for snappy headlines. If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative makes a difference in biomedical research, it will probably be in those seemingly obscure subjects that turn out to be unexpectedly valuable.