Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s embattled co-founder and CEO, isn’t just interested in creating the biggest ad machine and political platform in history. He also wants to fix and accelerate the rate of scientific discovery.
In a video conversation published on Monday with Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, and Tyler Cowen, an economist from George Mason University, he shared his wide-ranging views and definition of progress, including medical and scientific breakthroughs.
He also shared his vision for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) that he launched in 2015 with his wife Priscilla Chan and its “big focus on medical research.”
“We have this aspirational goal that we want to help build tools that can help scientists cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of this century,” he said.
The goal is to fill the void where the U.S. government falls short.
“The government is the most important funder of science. It basically funds the whole establishment of scientists across the country, but the grants are very spread out,” Zuckerberg said. “They are not put into the big infrastructure projects, and that’s the niche that we felt through CZI that we can maybe help to fill.”
Zuckerberg likened his approach at CZI to his guests’ take on progress and how we’re now falling short, which they wrote about for the Atlantic in an article titled We Need a New Science of Progress.
Cowen described what he called an “invisible crisis.”
“People are living longer, we’re spending more and more and more for exactly the same returns. So if that trend continues and you see a similar trend in many areas, crop yields, feeding the world, other areas — the question becomes, where does the progress go?” Cowen asked. “There is this invisible crisis and people are distracted by the headlines about CRISPR, whatever, but actually what you get for the money — performance is so-so, I think.”
So what Zuckerberg is proposing instead is investment in strategic infrastructure and tools to jumpstart that innovation.
“Instead of $1 million in a lab, put a $100 million or a couple $100 million over time into building up a really important scientific assets for the community, it’s almost like a periodic table, but for biology,” Zuckerberg said. “If you look at the history of science, most inventions have been preceded by the invention of new tools that help people look at things in new ways.”
It seems that with CZI Zuckerberg is looking to transfer the same ideas of openness and sharing that spearheaded Facebook to the field of medical research.
“We have this aspirational goal that we want to help build tools that can help scientists cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of this century.”
One of the first projects at the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative is called a Human Cell Atlas, which will “map and characterize all cells in a healthy human body: cell types, numbers, locations, relationships and molecular parts,” according to UGA Today’s recent profile of Cori Bargmann, head of science at CZI.
Bargmann’s mandate is ambitious: “To support the science and technology that would make it possible to cure or manage all diseases by 2100.”
At the beginning of Facebook, not enough people questioned the ethics of the platform and its practices. This is how we ended up where we are now.
As big tech already plays an outsized, largely unregulated role in our political process and public information sphere, it may be high time to examine the impact they’re looking to have on the rate of scientific progress and what type of actors are likely to benefit from this shared information.