Last December, Mark Zuckerberg became one of the most generous Santa Claus figures the world has ever seen. He pledged to give away 99% of his vast fortune – at the time valued at $45 billion – in a philanthropic act to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Time will tell exactly how this money filters down to worthy causes, but given the tech origins of the wealth we would anticipate significant sums would go towards funding innovation to meet the Initiative’s goals.

Mark Zuckerberg joins a growing list of some of the world’s wealthiest people who have vowed to give at least half their wealth to philanthropic or charitable causes, either during their lifetime or in their will. The movement, driven by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, has attracted dozens of billionaires to sign up. It’s called The Giving Pledge.

Philanthropy gives wealthy individuals the chance to give back, make a difference to causes they care about and even indulge their own curiosity to see how far a field of science can be pushed. Many philanthropists have self-made fortunes and of course that doesn’t come by accident: hard work, risk, keeping on top of the numbers… Yet an interesting split in how philanthropic donations are given is in how the projects are chosen. Let us explain.

Some work almost like an extension of government, tackling pressing global problems like disease or poverty. They demand results: infections reduced by x%, universal access to education etc.

But other acts of philanthropy are concerned with less tangible goals: in Google terminology ‘Moon shots’ that may not come off but are worthy of exploring, if only people will take a chance on them. With the scrutiny and accountability that rightly comes with public expenditure, governments are sometimes constrained from doing all they might in these areas, but a philanthropist – who is primarily accountable to themselves – has that freedom.

We will explore this split and look first at how philanthropy is funding R&D in tackling urgent, life or death problems – for our purposes, dreadful diseases that have blighted humanity. Then we will proceed to explore how philanthropy can be used to satisfy what the novelist E.M. Forster called one of the four characteristics of humanism: curiosity.

Who’s the biggest killer of them all?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – set up by the Microsoft founder to manage the billions of dollars that he has devoted to philanthropy himself and attracted from other donors – is at the forefront of fighting infectious diseases in the developing world.

The humble mosquito is credited with being the biggest killer of humans on the planet. Latest estimates suggest they account for 725,000 deaths every year. Humans, are perhaps unsurprisingly, next on the list with 475,000 kills, followed by snakes in a distant third place with 50,000. To put the mosquito in context, the fearsome shark only kills 10 people.

world's deadliest animals infographic

World’s most dangerous animals infographic courtesy of Gatesnotes

Malaria is the most serious disease these tiny insects carry (although dengue fever, yellow fever and encephalitis can hardly be described as pleasant either) and The Gates Foundation has lined it up in its sights. To date, they have devoted about $2 billion to fight the disease. One area of research and development in this field is in developing new drugs such as transmission-blocking vaccines and single, fixed-dose combination drugs for cure and prevention. These could be a crucial next step after the good work that has already been accomplished. Over the last 12 years, thanks to a tenfold increase in funding, new cases of malaria have fallen by 25% and deaths by more than 40%.

As well as the human cost of the disease, it is estimated that it costs the economies of developing countries billions of dollars every year in lost productivity. So beating this disease has the potential to have a transformative effect economically too.

Much needed aid against HIV

HIV and AIDS is another strong focus of The Gates Foundation. As with the fight against Malaria, investing in the research and development of vaccines is part of a multi-pronged approach. They do this through the whole pipeline, from funding early concepts with their Grand Challenges Explorations competition, to driving interesting concepts towards human trials, and late-stage clinical trials. With more than 33 million people suffering from HIV and 30 million having been killed by it, the illness represents a huge global challenge.

Another novel approach that The Gates Foundation is funding is the application of wonder-material Graphene in condoms. Graphene is one of the strongest materials known to man, only one-atom thick and is stretchy. All useful properties for the one contraceptive that can both manage birth control and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

With interventions by philanthropists as well as many other sources, progress is being made. New cases of HIV have fallen by 20% since the mid-90s peak and half of victims who could benefit from anti-retroviral treatment are receiving it.

Helping West Africa bounce back from Ebola

A disease that sent shockwaves around the world more recently and shut down three West African Countries was Ebola. While the pandemic was eventually brought under control, the international community was criticised for its tardiness in rallying.

Governments may have been slow, but one individual who can’t be accused of not doing enough was renowned philanthropist Paul Allen. Also one of the founders of Microsoft, Paul Allen has given over $1 billion to good causes and that includes $100 million towards the fight against Ebola, which was granted in November 2014. As well as providing immediate resources to help deal with the emergency that was unfolding, the commitment included millions of dollars towards research, to develop and then deploy Ebola diagnostic testing, equipment to support the clinical trials of the production and evaluation of convalescent plasma and other blood products and the creation of a working global health risk-management framework.

Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat

Now we turn our attention to that other kind of philanthropy. The one that uses the freedom the philanthropist has earnt themselves to further humanity’s quest for knowledge without any guarantee of success. A disease may not be cured. World peace may not break out. But maybe, just maybe, they will change the world as we know it forever.

Are we alone?

Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire with an eye for a shrewd investment in social media companies (a fascinating résumé can be read here), is looking to the stars with his philanthropy. A physicist in a former life, he has pledged $100 million over ten years to fund SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life. Whilst on the one hand this is a fundamental question in understanding our place in the universe, it is not something that is top of world governments’ shopping lists! And this is the special role that philanthropists can play in advancing human knowledge.

Milner’s project called Breakthrough Listen, in which Stephen Hawkins is also involved, is to buy access to the giant radiotelescopes Greenbank in West Virginia, USA and Parkes in Australia to increase the existing coverage of the skies in the search for extra-terrestrial life tenfold. They are looking for signals within the entire electromagnetic spectrum from distant stars that could indicate attempts at communication from who knows what!

From a research and development perspective, another interesting aspect to this story, is how the data collected is being processed. Incidentally, we are talking a lot of data – potentially as much in a day as was previously being collected in a year! They are using the SETI@home project run by Berkeley University, which sources computer processing power from millions of private computers in their downtime to crunch the numbers.

Yuri Milner believes that the Internet will develop into a global brain, or central nervous system for planet earth, as machines and individuals become ever more connected. Seti@home certainly seems to be a piece of the jigsaw towards this. Some of Yuri’s insights into the Breakthrough Listen project are recorded here. Among them how the capability today to ‘buy’ radio-telescope time privately and the principles of Moore’s Law, in which computer power doubles every two years, make now a great time to conduct this research.

Moore examples of philanthropy

And that brings us nicely on to Gordon Moore – co-founder of Intel, author of the aforementioned Moore’s Law and Philanthropist with a $6.7 billion dollar fortune. Through his foundation – The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation – Gordon Moore has sought to “support emerging research – often so innovative that it has been overlooked or underfunded.”

Recent grants include $2.3 million to fund the development of a nano-submarine which can explore inside living cells. $13.5 million to help with the costs of producing an accelerator-on-a-chip which could revolutionise the field of particle accelerators and the physics energy frontier. And a portfolio of grants to develop an earthquake early warning system that would buy people vital time with which to take shelter. The ultimate goal is to make this earthquake early warning system technology free to all.

Protecting us against humanity’s biggest existential threat

Elon Musk has had his finger in a fair number of pies: SpaceX, Tesla, and PayPal. But what is keeping him up at night? It sounds like the answer may be Artificial Intelligence (AI). He has described it as “our biggest existential threat” and “summoning the demon”. Such apprehension led him to donate $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to explore how AI can be kept beneficial to humanity. Fears surrounding AI include the marrying of AI to weapons systems like drones, and the possibility that once developed it will become self-sustaining, ever more powerful, independent and even contemptuous of humanity.

Hollywood has had plenty of fun with such plotlines before with films such as The Terminator, West World, The Matrix and I, Robot. When you look at it like that you can see why it is worth investing in research to keep it legit, especial when the military application of AI is already being talked about in terms of as the third military revolution after gunpowder and nuclear technology.

The majority of Musk’s grant will fund AI researchers with the rest allocated to AI’s impact upon economics, law, ethics and policy.

Making the world a better place

Philanthropy and R&D clearly have a close relationship. Whether trying to eradicate a killer disease, or answer one of the great philosophical questions of our time, the generosity of philanthropists significantly helps with funding. There are plenty of other ways in which R&D can be funded though including, for UK companies, the R&D tax credit scheme which can pay for over 30% of qualifying costs. The advances sought don’t have to be as grand as those explored in this article. They just need to create or appreciably improve a product, process or system and have some level of uncertainty over the outcomes. To find out more contact one of our experts at ForrestBrown.

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