Woody Allen is often quoted as saying 80 percent of life is just showing up. This past week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a decent check, and just as important, he showed up for life sciences. It’s a small gesture, but a start.
The social-networking wizard took some time out of his week to stop by UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay research campus, for a press conference to unveil the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
This new prize, worth $3 million to each winner, went to an inaugural class of 11 of the biggest achievers in biomedicine. Billionaire Yuri Milner came up with the idea after establishing a similar award for physics. Besides Zuckerberg, he enlisted Google billionaire Sergey Brin, and their wives Priscilla Chan and Anne Wojcicki, to help join the cause for life sciences.
The money, of course, isn’t all that much to people already worth billions. While it may be a lot to the scientists personally, the gold itself isn’t really what this new set of prizes is about. It’s more about whether some of our most admired business celebrities can use their fame to recalibrate the priorities of a world obsessed with money, fame, sports, and entertainment.
That may be asking too much, but if nothing else, these tech zillionaires at least gave the appearance that they understand that the recognition they get is more than they deserve. Maybe just a little bit of their fortune, and fame, ought to rub off on the low-paid and underappreciated people who contribute to the world by creating new treatments for cancer or vaccines for malaria.
“We are thrilled to support scientists who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives. These scientists should be household names and heroes in society,” Wojcicki, the co-founder of 23andMe, said in a statement. “Curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown,” Brin said.
Brin’s statement is just common sense that I’m sure most parents and teachers would agree with. But it means something coming from him.
Guys like Brin and Zuckerberg have an unusual responsibility in our society, because they are among the small handful of people who are celebrated because they are all extremely bright, driven, and rich. That celebrity club includes Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. These people set an example, showing that it’s possible for people who are smart, and work hard, to achieve great things and be rewarded.
Zuckerberg, though, is almost in a category by himself. Not only is he a household name, but he’s so young himself that kids everywhere in K-12 schools, college, and grad school can relate to him, right down to his wardrobe. These kids don’t pay any attention to business news headlines, like the one from last week which said Facebook paid no federal or state income taxes on its $1.1 billion profit last year. Young people are more likely to see Zuckerberg through a rose-colored lens, which gives him a good reason to behave like a good corporate citizen.
He sounds like he wants to be one. Here’s what Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks to the crowd of scientists at UCSF:
“The reason I’m excited about this is that I think our society needs more heroes that are scientists and researchers and engineers. You are doing all this amazing work. The thing we can do from the sidelines is build institutions that celebrate and reward and recognize all of the real work you guys are doing to cure diseases, to expand our understanding of humanity, and to improve people’s lives in all these ways.
“A lot of this isn’t about even you guys here today. A lot of what we’re doing here is about the next generation of folks. The students, the college students, and grad students who are in labs today, trying to figure out what they should work on and research. And younger kids who are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Hopefully, what we’re doing here today can help create something that will be really inspirational to folks, to encourage more people to do the important work you’re taking on.”
This is an important message from anyone, but it’s especially important coming from Zuckerberg. He, after all, has applied his intellectual gifts and business acumen to making people spend more of their lives glued to his website, and clicking on advertisements to buy more stuff. Not only does Zuckerberg apply his talents to this quest, his company spends a huge amount of time, money and energy recruiting as many bright young minds as it can find coming out of Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere to make this their life’s work.
It’s not exactly God’s work.
What Zuckerberg and the other Silicon Valley celebrities supporting the Breakthrough Prize appear to understand is that we reap what we sow in this society. If we worship at the feet of LeBron James, we’re going to get millions of young people yearning to achieve that kind of success in basketball. If we adore Lady Gaga, millions of young people will strive to get on American Idol. If people look at the Forbes 400 and see only hedge fund managers, trust fund babies, and Internet advertising billionaires like Zuckerberg and Brin, then we shouldn’t be surprised when waves of smart young people show up there ready to work.
What you don’t see rewarded on those lists are people who created a great cancer drug, a new vaccine, or solved our nation’s healthcare delivery catastrophe. There are plenty of smart people working on those important challenges, but a huge amount of human capital has been flowing for years in other, less valuable directions.
As Christian Chabot, the CEO of Seattle-based Tableau Software, recently put it: “One of the great tragedies of the modern technology industry is that a majority of the world’s most brilliant and talented people, many of them computer scientists, have spent the last 15 years working on projects that are primarily about getting people to click on more ads, or put more stuff in their shopping cart. I just don’t find this very inspiring.”
To be sure, Zuckerberg and his celebrity bully pulpit aren’t going to solve some of the structural problems in biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health, which finances $30 billion a year of research, has been living under the threat of serious budget cuts for years. Unless something dramatic were to change, the cuts will whack many deserving projects, and curtail the careers of many bright, aspiring young scientists.
Even before the threat of this latest round of budget cuts, young scientists were finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead. The NIH says the average age of a first-time federal grant winner is now age 42. That happens to be an age when many people have mortgages, and families to feed, and they need to have a good-paying job. And the job market for highly skilled biotech workers is pretty bleak.
So when celebrities like Zuckerberg stand up in public and declare their respect for the Eric Landers and Titia de Langes of the world, it’s a nice gesture. It may help inspire a few young people to follow in their productive footsteps. It certainly helps that a few celebrities are willing to put some of their own money into biomedical research. It helps that Zuckerberg cared enough to show up at the Breakthrough Prize press conference, which guaranteed that the news would be widely reported. It helps that these billionaires are channeling their money into prizes, which are powerful motivating forces for good. But if we really want to inspire more young people to pursue greatness in the life sciences, then our whole society needs to do a lot more to truly support them and reward them, financially and otherwise.
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