Published online 24 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.400

News: Q&A

Tech titans plan to save the planet

Former Google philanthropy chief targets climate change and the Middle East.

Larry BrilliantLarry Brilliant is to head up a new fund to tackle urgent threats to the planet.Robert Scoble / Wikimedia Commons

Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who helped to eradicate smallpox, is to leave his job as head of Google.org, the search giant's philanthropic arm, to lead the Skoll 'Urgent Threats Fund', created this month by Jeffrey Skoll, former founding president of eBay and head of the Skoll Foundation.

The new fund aims to bring money — some $100 million to begin with — along with advocacy, technology and Hollywood, to bear on five threats facing humanity and the planet: climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East. Nature News asked Brilliant about how he intends to help save the world.

How did the idea of an Urgent Threats Fund come about?

About a year and a half ago, I went with Jeff Skoll to India, and I took him to a village that had a lot of polio, a village where I'd worked during the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication programme.

During the conversation, the thread emerged of how the smallpox effort's momentum had been crucial in engendering public support and commitment for polio eradication. That led on to thinking about the whole variety of threats that could bring the planet to its knees, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, and we figured that one common denominator was that, as with polio, preventing them would require unprecedented levels of sustained public awareness and support.

Jeff said what was needed was to bring together fresh money, the community of social entrepreneurs and organizations already working on these issues, and media campaigns the likes of which nobody has ever seen, and why not the expertise of Hollywood. That's when the idea of the Urgent Threats Funds was born, a dedicated venture that binds together these activities to put them at the service of combating, mitigating and preventing these urgent threats.

Jeff's uniquely placed here. As founder of eBay, he understands technology, and he's supported social entrepreneurs for a decade through his Skoll Foundation. On top of that, his film company Participant Media has so far made 17 films to promote social progress — including An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Darfur Now, and The Visitor — while his Capricorn Investment Group targets projects that include social goals — and not just profit — in the bottom line, such as the Tesla electric car.

Many well-established organizations are already combating these threats. How will the fund make an impact?

On tackling pandemics, I feel very confident and competent. I know the players, and I understand the issues. I'm less expert in the other threats. I've lived in India and Pakistan for ten years, I speak Urdu, and I've spent a lot of time in Iran, but no one really understands all the complexity. And when it comes to the Middle East, anyone who tells you he is not a beginner is not telling the truth. We will be meeting with experts in all these areas and trying to find out how we can help.

“Our job is to humbly go out into these fields and find the strong hands and good hearts and support them.”

Larry Brilliant
Skoll Urgent Threats Fund

I see the fund as having a facilitating, catalysing role. What Jeff and I have really announced is a partnership to help the people who are working to prevent these urgent threats. Don't look to us as being the smart guys with all the answers; that's not how it's going to work.

Our job is to humbly go out into these fields and find the strong hands and good hearts and support them. We will support them with money, with introductions to people working in orthogonal fields, with sophisticated media, and with access to technology. I will be doing my very best to sneak back into Google and borrow great technology from it for these good causes — Google have invited me to do just that.

$100 million is a lot of money, but it's not a great deal when compared with the scale of the challenges you are tackling.

First, this $100 million is not an endowment, it is a budget for the next few years. We will be spending $20 million to $30 million a year, and Jeff's indicated that he's ready to put in much more. But it's not the money that makes this such an interesting venture, it's the approach. Look at An Inconvenient Truth: it cost just $1 million to make but has probably had more impact on the climate change debate than anything you can think of. Combine fresh money with the breadth of tools Jeff is bringing to bear, and I feel we have a pretty good poker hand. We're not as big as the Gates Foundation or Google.org but we will add our value wherever we can.

What role do you see for scientists and universities?

“In terms of creating the workforce needed to meet the major threats of the twenty-first century, the approach in today's universities is ill-conceived, underfunded and poorly executed.”

Larry Brilliant
Skoll Urgent Threats Fund

They have an important role to play. But in terms of creating the workforce needed to meet the major threats of the twenty-first century, the approach in today's universities is ill-conceived, underfunded and poorly executed. We need to create new categories of profession, say software engineers who are also trained as epidemiologists, or nuclear physicists who are also trained in foreign policy and diplomacy.

So I'm interested in cross-disciplinary training, including PhD programmes to break down the barriers and silos. This is really important. You find people who are comfortable in such dual roles who are in their sixties; we want to have them in their thirties.

What have you learnt during your time at Google.org that will help in your new role?

I'm so proud of the projects that we funded in our Predict and Prevent initiative on emerging diseases, and the way we built the Mekong Delta disease surveillance network with Rockefeller Foundation. I'm really proud of Flu Trends, our service to detect flu epidemics from search-engine queries. I think it's a new kind of science. Importantly, in every one of these projects we did them with partners, we never did a single thing alone.

There's a wonderful African expression that Al Gore used to quote: "If you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel with a group." I think what I learned is that if you want to go far in the world of philanthropy you travel with a group. 

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