The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) was announced in December 2015 by the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan at the announcement of the birth of their first daughter. The couple committed 99% of their Facebook stock to the philanthropic project to “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy”. In September last year they announced plans to invest $3bn over the next 10 years towards the goal of eradicating all diseases.
“By investing in science today,’ said paediatrician Chan, “we hope to build a future in which all of our children can live long and rewarding lives.”
Jeremy Freeman is manager of computational biology at the CZI.
What attracted you to the Chan Zuckerberg initiative?
I was working at the Janelia Research Campus and I was spending about half my time doing neuroscience research and the other half building tools and technologies to help science happen faster, including methods of data analysis and data sharing. As I did that work, I began to view that as what I was most excited about and where I could see an opportunity. So when I saw the CZI announcement I was struck by what CZI was trying to do – to develop new ways to use technology to accelerate the progress of science.
The aims of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are laudable and ambitious – “to cure, prevent or manage all disease during our children’s lifetime”. When would you expect to start seeing results?
It’s definitely ambitious. If we said we wanted to achieve some of those things in a thousand years it might seem achievable or doable. So really the question is: how do we make a thousand years of progress in, say, a hundred years? So then we need to think about how we do accelerate the process by which we all do science and we all understand biology.
Can you explain what a computational neuroscientist does?
Neuroscience is understanding how the brain works all of the complex behaviours that organisms and animals, including humans, are capable of. How it is that our brains allow us to learn, remember and perceive. That is fundamentally a question of biology and when you try and study it, it turns out that the systems are so complex it quickly becomes a problem that requires a lot of maths and analysis mediated by modern software. That includes processing, analysing and visualisation data and it also includes statistical analysis and using mathematical models to understand biology.
At what stage is the CZI project? Do you have a building? Are you funding projects?
We have a building; we’ve moved already in the time I’ve been here. We’re very much getting started. In terms of identifying projects, we are growing rapidly, especially in the intersection of science and engineering, to accelerate science.
We are in the process of listening to the scientific community; we’re doing things like holding workshops, we’re bringing together experts to talk to us about key problems and areas where we could help and collaborate with the existing scientific community.
Is there a project you are particularly excited about?
A key one is the Human Cell Atlas. This is a large international collaborative effort to characterise and catalogue all the cells in the human body. Which will be a reference resource for both understanding basic biology as well as understanding disease. We are trying to find ways to help support it and to accelerate it, especially in its early stages. Aspects of it that we are especially excited about are developing experimental technology to find new and better ways to characterise gene expression patterns in individual cells, as well as think through data architecture, strategies for organising, sharing and openly distributing data across a large complex international project.
Is the CZI mission statement the same thing as saying that you’d like everyone to live for ever?
No, I wouldn’t say that. We are broad in what we are exploring right now. That we want to work on these problems doesn’t mean that no one will ever get sick. Right now, people die from five things: heart disease, cancer stroke, neurodegenrative disease and infectious disease. We think we can help speed up progress on these problems and other problems. As well as accelerate the process by which basic science and biology happens – you don’t know how to cure something until you understand it.
Are you saying that they way biomedical companies and academia do science is too slow and there are things that could be done to speed up the process?
Through my career, I have spent time in traditional academic university settings, I’ve been in independent research institutes and now I am here – and I can say honestly that all of these modes of doing science are incredibly valuable. But what I’m very super-excited about is to bring a lot of the modern advances in software development to bear on some really hard and challenging problems when it comes to working with the vast quantities of complex data that is currently coming out of biology.
Will any engineers from Facebook be working on CZI projects? Is there any overlap between the two organisations at all?
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Facebook are entirely separate entities.
Have you met Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan? How much involvement do they have in your work?
They are passionate, engaged, and really excited about our efforts, and they’re actively involved, especially as we’re ramping up initial projects.
Will all your research be peer-reviewed, published in journals and published for all to see?
We are absolutely committed to open dissemination of data and code and knowledge; that’s something I have been committed to all the time I’ve been a scientist.
You’re working on a project to eradicate disease, you co-edited a book called The Future of the Brain – you like a challenge?
Yes, that’s definitely true. It’s good to have potential very far off ambitious goals. It doesn’t mean you’ll achieve them right away but they guide you and help you measure work and effort.
Jeremy Freeman will be speaking in London at Wired Health today