Melissa Stevens
Executive Director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy
Health and Medical Research and Philanthropy
Melissa Stevens is the executive director of the Milken Institute's Center for Strategic Philanthropy. The Center for Strategic Philanthropy works to maximize return on philanthropic investment by ensuring that innovation used to address one social issue is translated to another, best practices and metrics guide new and existing giving programs,...
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Chan Zuckerberg Science: Building Cathedrals and Basketball Courts

By: Melissa Stevens
September 29, 2016

Photo Credit: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

There is an oft-used sports analogy that you will hear in the field of medical philanthropy: that all of usparticularly medical researchershave to stop playing golf and start playing basketball (or football or soccer…reader’s choice). Sadly, the incentives for collaboration in the medical community are not as strong as they should be, especially given that the most transformative breakthroughs occur when researchers co-create across disciplines, institutions, borders and even generations.

This generational point was brought home most saliently last week when Dr. Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, unveiled their next significant investment “for the love of Max” or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the multibillion dollar philanthropic organization the couple launched in December 2015 to mark the birth of their first child, Maxima Chan Zuckerberg.

Following a substantial investment in education, Chan Zuckerberg Science is a $3 billion commitment over 10 years dedicated to “curing, preventing and managing all diseases by the end of the century.” The CZI Science program has three primary components: 1) fostering collaboration between scientists and engineers; 2) building tools and technology that will be available for all researchers worldwide; and 3) leading a movement to encourage governments and philanthropy to provide more financial support for science research. All three areas are particularly welcome to those of us who have been working in partnership with policymakers and scientists to determine the most effective ways that philanthropists can help the medical community marshal its resources to meet specific life-saving goals. 

Whether it be the enthusiasm of youth or the confidence of Silicon Valley, it is hard to find a goal that is bigger, hairier or more audacious than curing all diseases by the end of the 21st century. And, not surprisingly, the CZI announcement has been met with some eye-rolling and skepticism. Yet, we think CZI Science is right on target. Isn’t it the job of philanthropists to dream big and make risky bets? Compared to government, academia or even the private sector, philanthropy is intrinsically better equipped to tolerate risk and respond more nimbly to new challenges and ideas.

Indeed, philanthropy has often been the secret sauce that has moved medical progress forward, especially in the United States. In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin originated one of the first examples of a public-private partnership to create Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, which was funded by both the state assembly and private donors. In the next century, Johns Hopkins went on to create and endow one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals, nursing schools and medical schools. And, in 1901, John D. Rockefeller established the Rockefeller University, the world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry, bioinformatics and physics. (It is, of course, not a coincidence that the new head of CZI Science, Cori Bargmann, was recruited directly from Rockefeller University). 

As we have learned at the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, there are few sectors more risky than medical research. For instance, only one out of every 10,000 academic discoveries becomes a medical product that reaches and benefits patients. Moreover, there are more than 10,000 known diseases but there are viable treatments for only 500 of them. To that end, our Philanthropy Advisory Service team has undertaken deep dives to analyze the unmet needs of over 10 diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Colorectal Cancer. Each one of our explorations has yielded a Giving Smarter Guide, which outline specific recommendations on how philanthropists can fill critical funding gaps in order to improve the capabilities and culture of the medical research system.

Without exception, each set of recommendations calls for targeted tools to help all of us better translate scientific breakthroughs into viable therapies. For instance, we need more robust preclinical disease models to understand how new therapies will work in humans, additional clinical markers to diagnose and measure progression (and with hope, reversal!) of disease and better systems for understanding disease biology. CZI has committed to building and widely disseminating these kinds of research tools that could be catalytic for the medical research community. One of the first tools in the toolkit will be the Cell Atlas, an open source tool that will elucidate the functionality of cellular apparatus and its role in proper cellular function. This tool could serve as a powerful benchmark when studying aberrant cellular function.

Similarly, across the board, we are seeing that the life sciences are quickly becoming data sciences. By requiring and enabling data-sharing, CZI will be able to build a platform to amass medical big datathe bits and bytes that reside in individual computers, databases and machines, to create new knowledge and lower the barriers-to-entry for current medical researchers.

And, by building literal and figurative collaborative structures, like the Biohub (a new $600 million research center with scientists/researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco), CZI will be giving the world a basketball court where we can assemble a global dream team of diverse skill sets, expertise and perspectives. By facilitating mega-collaboration and enabling information-sharing, we will be able to accelerate the pace of research and deliver real results for patients.  

Being a bit tired of sports analogies, another metaphor came to mind while I watched Chan and Zuckerberg’s announcement last week: cathedral building. Most of the world’s most beautiful cathedralsstunning feats of human creativity and ingenuitywere built over hundreds, even thousands, of years. The original architects and designers never saw the finished product.  Yet, their mission and faith kept them resolute and progress continued. As a new mother to my own Max (a boybut a Max nonetheless), I fully appreciate the inspiration and motivation behind the Chan Zuckerberg gift, and I am grateful that the 21st century has produced a new generation of philanthropists to move us all forward. 


  • Really like the sports analogy. Although living in Europe for the last 10 years I would liken it more to a national soccer team that has a bunch of star players who are too focused on their own performance and not that of the team. They are all on the same field but not working together. Those types of teams are routinely beaten by teams of less famous players who work together extremely well. This is perhaps a point that is missed about collaboration in science. A scientist might say "I collaborate. Look at all the co-authors on my papers." The question is how deep is that collaboration? They might be on the same paper but still, work in relative silos. The real problem is that the goals of collaborative science and individual science are different. An individual scientist wants to be the one who identifies the new mechanism or finds the new therapy. Collaborative science is about making a step change in your field. I find that kind of science much more gratifying however it is much more challenging. It gets particularly interesting when you begin to involve multiple disciplines and multiple stakeholders such as the Zuckerberg/Chan initiative plans to do.

    Posted by Scott Wagers, 09/30/2016 (9 months ago)

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