Bio21 Director's Message - The Joy of Giving - 23 December 2020

With a newsfeed dominated by COVID-19 updates, you probably skimmed over or missed this headline in the Guardian newspaper 19 September this year: “Billionaire Chuck Feeney achieves goal of giving away his fortune. Irish-American mogul’s philanthropic foundation runs out of cash after 38 years.

Preferring anonymity, you may never have heard of Chuck Feeney, or have an inkling that he has anything to do with you, yet Chuck Feeney is understood to be the greatest individual giver in Australian history.

He has only now begun to share his story, to encourage others to give ‘giving whilst living’ a go: ‘try it, you might like it’. The Guardian article reads:

“Chuck Feeney has achieved his lifetime ambition: giving away his $8bn (£6bn) fortune while he is still around to see the impact it has made.

For the past 38 years, Feeney, an Irish American who made billions from a duty-free shopping empire, has been making endowments to charities and universities across the world with the goal of “striving for zero … to give it all away”.

This week Feeney, 89, achieved his goal. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation he set up in secret in 1982 and transferred almost all of his wealth to, has finally run out of money.

As he signed papers to formally dissolve the foundation, Feeney, who is in poor health, said he was very satisfied with “completing this on my watch”.

His contributions to Australian Life Sciences helped to deliver more than 20 outstanding health and medical research facilities across Australia, including $50 million towards the construction of the David Penington Building, Bio21 Institute.

Chuck Feeney was awarded AusBiotech’s Life Science Legacy Award “in recognition of his tremendous and unprecedented support of the Australian life sciences ecosystem across many decades.”

By giving away his wealth, Chuck Feeney created a wealth of higher education and scientific research infrastructure and opportunity, that has untold benefits for the health of individuals, communities and society. It is a gift that keeps giving.

At Bio21 we work:

  • in world-class laboratories;
  • in beautiful and purpose-built buildings;
  • with access to cutting-edge powerful facilities and instruments. 

In 2020 we saw the completion of the Ruth Bishop Building and the Ian Holmes Imaging Centre, that houses our electron microscopes. We look forward to officially opening these sometime in 2021.

Another example of philanthropy that has greatly benefited Bio21 was the award of $2M by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation in 2018 to establish the ACRF Facility for Innovative Cancer Drug Discovery which has provided cutting edge equipment for two of our platforms: Melbourne Protein Characterisation and Magnetic Resonance.
Our work as scientists is only possible through the generosity of others; the Australian public, but also through philanthropists such as Chuck Feeney.

You may be surprised to hear that Chuck Feeney, through his own choice, does not own a car or home and owns only one pair of shoes. He is known to fly only economy class, wears a $10 Casio watch and carries his papers in a plastic bag.
During our Victorian 12-week lockdown, with nowhere to go and reduced to the essentials of life, many of us began to notice and appreciate the bird life and natural spaces within a 5km radius of our home; the joy of cooking and baking; a slower pace of life without the stress of the daily commute; and seeing more of our close family members and our pets.
Realising how few things we actually need, may be one of the enduring gifts of 2020 and these may be some of changes we may wish to retain into 2021.

We also became acutely aware of how interconnected and interdependent we are on others for the services we enjoy, our daily needs and health, such as teachers, childcare workers, healthcare workers, supermarket staff, cleaners and security guards, but also our interactions with colleagues, friends and family members.

It was perhaps a surprising and welcome acknowledgement from the public, that suddenly scientists too, where considered ‘essential workers.’

‘We are all in this together’ became a catchcry of 2020. And together we achieved a great deal:

  • Together, the Victorian community eliminated the spread of the coronavirus;
  • Together, the global community of scientists designed, tested and are now delivering vaccines around the globe, as well as testing drugs to help treat those who have become seriously ill.

2021 will see the roll-out of vaccines, that will help the world community see an end to this pandemic. But with COVID-19 revealing great inequalities in our communities, there is still much work to be done.

Not all of us work in vaccines or drug discovery and development against COVID-19. Although not in the front of mind this year, I am excited by the impact that decades of development of personalised medicine is having in the clinic on cancer survival rates; I’m amazed when I see at the possibilities of Wolbachia being used to control the spread of dengue and zika virus and how it may one day also be applied to agricultural pests. These are just a couple of areas of Bio21 research that are having great impacts in our world.

I wish to thank all of you who have carried on and given a great deal of yourselves through your research and teaching, as well as to your families and communities this year, despite all the great challenges. 

In the documentary about his life, “Secret Billionaire: The Chuck Feeney Story”, it is said of Chuck Feeney that “…those who knew him say he was transformed, he was much happier and really enjoying life. The more he gave, the more he enjoyed it.”

May we be grateful for the gifts we’ve received this year and I wish you the joy that comes from seeing the impact that your gift of research can have in the world.

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute