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Philanthropy’s tech billionaire reboot could be good for policymaking

Bill Gates embraces Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg during an announcement of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to ‘cure, prevent or manage all disease’ by the end of the century. Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

A new kind of philanthropist is emerging in the 21st century. They show little interest in the old philanthropic model - attending galas and endowing their alma mater.

Today, relatively young technology billionaires are creating a new paradigm of philanthropy, one that arguably sets a new standard of ethical practice in the non-profit sector.

Their purpose is to use their influence to push the boundaries of science and technology for the creation of social benefit. In a growing trend, in 2014, more than US$5 billion was donated by wealthy technologists for this purpose.

A cynic might say it is about lining their own pockets, yet there is ample evidence to suggest they are motivated by a kind of win-win altruism. These are men and women who think global and want to leave a legacy.

Who are we talking about? It is a long list indeed, with names like Gordon Moore (Intel), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan, Sean Parker (Facebook), Paul Allen (Microsoft) and Michael Dell, to mention a few.

Shortfalls in government funding

One factor in the rise of the new philanthropy is that government spending on science in the US has been dropping in recent times. Research institutes are closing, projects being put on hold or abandoned for want of funding. Increasingly, science philanthropy is stepping up to address the shortfall.

It is not surprising that wealthy technologists would want to invest in pushing the boundaries of science. Technology is, after all, applied science. Without the research, technological progress slows to a crawl.

As a result, we are seeing the priorities of science being influenced less by government policy and academia, and more by the priorities of the philanthropic giver. After all, who pays the piper calls the tune. It is a trend giving rise to some disquiet in the science establishment. With pressure on government budgets from other priorities, the trend towards the outsourcing of science funding is likely to continue.

The Gates Foundation

Even the wealthiest of governments would be hard pressed to match the funding of some of the larger new “venture philanthropists”.

With assets of around US$44 billion, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a prime example of the new philanthropy. To date it has spent roughly US$10 billion on a range of programs in developing countries to improve health care, provide education and reduce poverty. It has funded efforts to control infectious diseases, malaria, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. It also funds family planning, basic health care, nutrition and sanitation.

It would be difficult to criticise such efforts, though it will not stop some from claiming they are only giving back what they had no right to take in the first place. Being a philanthropist today can be a thankless business.

Is there a dark side?

Silicon Valley billionaire and philanthropist Peter Thiel incurred the wrath of his peers by strongly supporting Donald Trump, donating money and making speeches for his election. Thiel has since been named a member of the President-elect’s transition team, indicating that he is not just a supporter but a trusted friend.

What does Thiel expect in return? Time will tell, but it is likely he will be most valuable serving as a mediator between a Trump White House and the largely left-wing Silicon Valley establishment to implement a new policy agenda. Not an easy job.

The new philanthropy is diversifying

It is a measure of the hyper-partisan nature of politics today that would call participation in the political process a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. We need more intelligent, capable people with technology skills to enter a field that has been brought into disrepute in recent times. Have you noticed how few politicians really understand technology?

Inside Philanthropy/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

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