Last week the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) bought a company called Meta. This small acquisition is potentially seismic in its implications for the worlds of science and education.
CZI is the philanthropic vehicle for Priscilla Chan and her husband Mark Zuckerberg (I put the couple in that order because they do). After the Initiative was announced with some fanfare, there have only been a few announcements – ambitious, striking, but mostly short on detail. Chan Zuckerberg Science was announced with the intention of “helping cure, prevent or manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.” The highly regarded Jim Shelton was appointed head of Chan Zuckerberg Education. They announced their first lead investment in edtech and employability company Andela, alongside a group of other well-known investors in the space. So far, so expected.
The Meta acquisition is different. In the company’s own words, Meta is “a tool that helps researchers understand what is happening globally in science and shows them where science is headed.” Facilitated by the move towards Open Access in scientific publishing, the venture-backed company was selling Artificial Intelligence-driven insights about the state and potential trajectory of research to publishers, pharma companies, and others.
Now, Meta’s toolset is going to be totally free, and the company has a clear mission to open up its technology to humans and machines, and collaborate with the research community to make itself better. The for-profit drive of the company has been up-ended, towards one of impact only. The venture investors are going to take their financial exit and leave (presumably having made profits they feel happy with).
This is unprecedented as far as I’m aware. I’ve never known a philanthropic organisation acquire a venture-backed startup and mould it to its own ends. Invest, make grants, lobby – all familiar stuff from the activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others. Acquire – no.
The effects of this are, in my view, many. There are relatively parochial issues about what happens to the world of Scientific, Technical and Medical publishing, which I spent several years analysing with my team when at Holtzbrinck. Market leader Elsevier’s apparent strategy of building competitive advantage through amassing proprietary data and the resulting algorithms looks challenged. Clarivate Analytics (previously part of Thomson Reuters) will be worried about the long term viability of its Web of Science product.
More interesting are the broader consequences and issues. I should say first that I feel that CZI is doing something really interesting and worthwhile here, and genuinely breaking new ground. But there are wrinkles.
- CZI just changed a commercial market. The value chain and power relationships amongst players in scientific publishing are altered substantially – not least as this is probably just the beginning of what CZI might do, given their financial firepower. Investors and shareholders will be worried and may hold off making spending decisions. Who knows what will be changed next?
- There is a risk that CZI actually reduce choice and innovation in the available algorithms and tools which analyse the corpus of scientific knowledge. It’s very difficult to compete with free. I suspect they have thought of this and may well want to put money into a range of approaches, but it’s worth pointing up.
- Venture capitalists may now have a new exit route to add to trade sale (i.e. sale to another company) or IPO: sell to CZI if your idea is clever enough and aligns with their theses. I wonder how soon I will see this in a fundraising document.
- There’s a clear issue of democratic accountability here. Without malice or deliberate intention on anyone’s part, we have ended up in a situation where two people can spend huge amounts of money according to their definition of “good”, and consequently affect a major component of our society. I suspect CZI are thoughtful and well aware of this, and consulted with the scientific community before making their acquisition. Nevertheless, this is another slightly scary illustration of how polarised our world is becoming.
So what about education? All of these issues are directly transferable. I would now be very surprised if Jim Shelton and his team don’t make some major moves which re-balance power in education ecosystems, particularly in the USA but likely more broadly. Investors and existing players need to take note of whatever signals we get from San Francisco.
Yet in my view CZI need to ensure they don’t transfer their model wholesale. Science has a clear, globally accepted value system based on “standing on the shoulders of giants” – rigorous process, peer review, publication. Teaching and learning are different. As I (and many others) have written before, establishing “what works” in education is a highly subjective, value-laden exercise. CZI will need to show how they are fostering innovation and impact in education with a diverse range of cultures and contexts – or unapologetically and publicly adopt a clear set of values, and argue passionately for them. They need to do these whilst avoiding being cast as latter-day cultural imperialists and facing a backlash. This is a tall order in a “post-truth” world where Zuckerberg has already struggled with issues of editorial responsibility in his day job at Facebook. The team have awe-inspiring ambition, power, and potential, which they have only just started to deploy. Things just got interesting.