Bill Gates Pushes His Foundation’s Health, Education, Energy Agenda at MIT—Podcast and Report

4/21/10Follow @wroush

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there was a computer in the classroom, and it confused the teachers and it was fun to figure out.” The rest is history—Gates is now one of the world’s richest humans. “I don’t look back with any regret,” he said.

Once Gates had the resources to start tackling larger social problems through his foundation—”taking Microsoft’s resources and giving them back,” as he put it—he said he was pleased to discover that there was plenty of “low-hanging fruit,” areas where his dollars could be put to great use. One of those is reducing the death rate among children under 5 years of age. Already, the child death rate has been reduced from 20 million per year in 1960 to under 9 million in 2009, thanks largely to vaccinations. But in many areas of the world, such as northern Nigeria and northern India, access to vaccines is still spotty. Reducing child death rates in those areas would have huge follow-on benefits, including a reduction in population growth rates, Gates said, since parents who are confident their offspring will survive past early childhood tend to have fewer children. So there’s a huge need for good ideas about how to produce and distribute vaccines more cheaply and efficiently, Gates argued.

Education is another area where there’s a need for study, innovation, and training to spread best practices. Gates said the U.S. education system is “quite poor,” with over 30 percent of teens dropping out of high school (50 percent among minorities) and millions of high school graduates arriving at college each year unprepared to succeed. “It blows my mind how little work has been done to identify” best practices in education, Gates said. “We know that some teachers are wildly better than others—that you can make two years of progress in one year if you get a top-quartile teacher, and zero years if you get a bottom-quartile teacher. What is going on?…It’s a system with huge opportunities to improve.”

The rate of progress on the big problems, Gates said, will be proportional to the number of young people who can be drawn into working on them, either full time or part time. He didn’t have any dramatic answers, though, for the question that was probably on the minds of many of the students in the audience: When society’s largest economic rewards are reserved for college graduates who do go into fields like finance or entertainment, what’s to attract bright young people to labor in underpaid obscurity? Why shouldn’t they follow a path more like Gates’s own—trying to make big money early in their careers, and waiting until they have more resources before they start “giving back”?

Gates acknowledged that “the economic rewards aren’t totally in line with these problems” and said it would be important to “think about what would change that.” But the final takeaway from Gates’s MIT talk may have been an unintended one. During the Q&A session, one bold student asked Gates “How does being the richest person in the world affect your lifestyle?” Gates joked that after reaching a certain level of wealth, “the marginal returns drop off. I haven’t found any burgers at any price that are better than McDonald’s…Once you get past some point, it’s all about how you’re going to give back.”

But what is that point, exactly? “A few million or something,” Gates said.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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