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Celebrating the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Commitment to Basic Science Research [Alliance Commentary]

By Marc Kastner, President

The Science Philanthropy Alliance is cheering Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s extraordinary commitment to basic science research.  Watch our video. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced today that it is making a $3 billion commitment to basic science research, making it the second key area of focus of their philanthropy, after education.

Distinguished scientist Cori Bargmann will lead the science initiative. Its first investment is a Bay Area “biohub” led by highly-respected scientists Stephen Quake and Joe DeRisi, and leveraging the exceptional scientific and engineering resources of the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University.

Focusing on basic science 

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was established to work on big, long-term problems. This new commitment to focus on basic science is particularly appropriate because this is the area of science where sustained support most often results in new knowledge that helps. Basic biomedical research can lead to the fundamental understanding of how our bodies work—in the hope that such understanding will lead to preventing, curing, or managing diseases. That’s the vision of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan for their science initiative. By setting a century-long time scale for seeing the fruits of this research, Chan Zuckerberg Science is assuming risks that industry generally cannot do and that government has found challenging due to budget constraints.

Basic science is not focused on specific applications, but on the exploration of unanswered scientific mysteries that could have an impact on an entire field of science. There are countless examples and stories about how basic science, driven solely by a scientist’s curiosity, has resulted in game-changing discoveries.

In the bio-medical research field, as in all other science research, basic science is about more than new discoveries or knowledge—it is absolutely vital. A recent Science magazine article described how cancer research moved from “taking potshots” to a much more successful “bottom-up, mechanism-based approach using newly acquired genetic knowledge.” In short, basic understanding of how our genes work allowed the scientific community to make significant progress on cancer therapies. Basic science can also have significant impact and accelerate progress in research into the causes, treatments, and cures of many other diseases.

The funding crunch and the role of private philanthropists

Despite the importance of basic research, federal funding for basic science is shrinking; 88% of AAAS scientists say that lack of funding for basic research is a serious problem.

Recognizing the seriousness of this funding gap, the Science Philanthropy Alliance was established to increase private funding to basic science. While private philanthropists cannot match the scale of federal funding, they can play a critical role in funding areas that the government is unlikely to fund, and they can highlight areas of opportunity that the government may fund in the future.

The Alliance encourages philanthropists and foundations to include basic science as a part of their giving portfolios. Already, there is growing interest in the philanthropic community in giving to basic science. As advisors, we offer the support that philanthropists need to give effectively—from sharing best practices on funding mechanisms to advice on how to create scientific advisory boards. Over the past year we helped the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative team explore models and mechanisms for giving as they developed their science philanthropy strategy. This included exploring the needs in basic research and providing information, advice, and introductions to leading scientists and philanthropists.

We are thrilled that Mark and Priscilla have chosen to approach their second funding area—basic science—with the support and counsel of distinguished scientists and experienced science philanthropists, including members of the Alliance. We look forward to continuing to support them as their work in science research evolves, and we hope that their commitment will inspire other philanthropists to consider giving to the exciting research opportunities in basic science.