Friday, May 24, 2024

Yuri Milner’s Science Philanthropy: Strategic Initiatives Driven by His Giving Pledge Commitment

Tech investor Yuri Milner is one of many ultra-wealthy individuals who have joined Warren Buffett and Melinda and Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge. Milner started his career as a theoretical physicist. His passion for science has led him to launch several initiatives that celebrate scientists, spread scientific ideas, and advance fundamental research.

Here’s a closer look at the science philanthropy efforts Milner has undertaken to fulfil his Giving Pledge commitment.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge: Inspiring the Next Generation

Milner opens his Giving Pledge letter with a story about one of his science heroes: Albert Einstein. As a young man, Einstein had to rely on his relatives to fund his final years of schooling after his father’s company folded.

In 2015, Milner launched the Breakthrough Junior Challenge to support the next generation of scientists. The annual, global competition for students inspires creative thinking about concepts in the life sciences, physics, or maths. Past winners have submitted engaging, original videos on tricky subjects like quantum entanglement and our sleep cycle.

Each year, the competition winner receives a $250,000 scholarship for post-secondary education. They also bag a $50,000 cash prize for their teacher and a brand-new science lab worth $100,000 for their school.

The 2023 Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner is Sia Godika from India. Her video used clever analogies and animation to explain a radical aspect of stem cell research: the Yamanaka factors.

The Breakthrough Prize: Investing in Scientists

Milner co-founded the Breakthrough Prize in 2012 with his wife Julia, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, and Anne Wojcicki. The set of awards recognises important advancements in three categories: Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences, and Mathematics.

In his Giving Pledge letter, Milner describes the Breakthrough Prize as a means of “investing in scientists.” The initiative rewards pioneering researchers with prizes of up to $3 million. The total amount conferred over 13 years of the Breakthrough Prize is now $308 million.

The Breakthrough Prize celebrates its winners at an annual star-studded ceremony. On 13 April 2024, luminaries from the entertainment, tech, business, and science communities gathered in LA to honour the latest batch of laureates. Presenters included Glenn Close, Alicia Keys, Michelle Yeoh, Edward Norton, Venus Williams, and Jessica Chastain.

The Breakthrough Initiatives: Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe

Milner launched the first Breakthrough Initiative in 2015 with Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough Listen has since reinvigorated the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The programme uses state-of-the-art telescopes to scan our galaxy for evidence of alien life.

In 2016, Milner, Hawking, and Zuckerberg launched Breakthrough Starshot. The $100 million research and engineering project hopes to develop a technology for interstellar travel.

Other Breakthrough Initiatives include Breakthrough Watch and Breakthrough Discuss. Watch is on the hunt for signs of primitive life on planets around Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars. Meanwhile, Discuss is a yearly academic conference dedicated to discussing life in the Universe and innovative ideas for space exploration.

In his Giving Pledge letter, Milner emphasises that wise non-profit investment into science can bring substantial rewards. He writes: “It’s not just that understanding the Universe and living organisms will profit us technologically; simply by fulfilling our human urge to know, these discoveries enrich us all.”

Read Yuri Milner’s Giving Pledge letter.

About Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner is the founder of DST Global, one of the world’s preeminent technology investors. DST Global’s portfolio has included internet heavyweights like Facebook, WhatsApp, Spotify, and Twitter.

A prolific philanthropist, Milner and his wife Julia have established several non-profit initiatives and support numerous charitable causes. In 2022, the couple founded Tech For Refugees. The global initiative helps partners like Airbnb.org and Flexport.org carry out their refugee relief programmes in global crisis zones.

Inspired by the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth, Milner wrote Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilisation in 2021. The short book proposes a shared mission for humanity and explores the risks and rewards of rejecting or pursuing this mission.

Milner studied business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also has an advanced degree in theoretical physics.

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