Here we go again. In another blaze of publicity, Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan pledge $3bn to fund medical research over the next decade to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century”.
Cue plaudits and oodles of unbridled admiration for the poster couple. But not everyone, me included, shares the love. First, $3bn (£2.3bn) isn’t as much as you might think in this context: total UK spending on health research, for example, comes in at around £8.5bn every year. And much of the funding will end up with ”biotech hub” companies in Silicon Valley. Second, the aim is unrealistic and shows a naïve belief in the ability of scientists to cure all our ills: in spite of the billions already spent on medical research the only infectious human disease declared eradicated by the World Heath Assembly is smallpox,
Diseases mutate and new ones develop, a growing threat in our warming world. Malaria remains a stubborn problem, and we still can’t cure the numerous cancers modern life throws up. This week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation claimed it would “solve” cancer within 10 years by cracking the code of cells, another example of big business hubris.
But the fundamental pitfall with the Zucks’ philanthropy is that it tackles consequence rather than cause. Poverty is a key part in the spread of diseases: you’re more likely to catch malaria or fall ill if you live in bad conditions. But it’s not the only driver. Richer societies have more cancer than poor, pinpointing lifestyle as the main culprit. Air pollution, chemicals in food, junk food, too much food, stress etc. could all trigger cancers unknown to our parents. You won’t cure, prevent or manage all diseases until you tackle their root causes.
And there are other issues, like tax. A number of US megacorps, including Facebook, stand accused of tax dodging. EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has just ordered Apple to cough up a whopping 13bn euros in back taxes. If they’re so concerned about the planet’s wellbeing, why not spend those unpaid taxes on poverty reduction measures in the developing world, or at least pay them to a government that could use them to reduce the glaring income and wealth inequalities nearer to home?
Finally, many of us contribute to charities with our money or time or both. It might not be three billion dollars, but it’s still a good whack. My guitar strings are made by a company that’s given 10 per cent of its profits to good causes every year since 1980. No fanfare, no trumpets, no cameras. Maybe the Gates and Zucks of this world could follow suit.