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

4/21/10Follow @wroush

Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates visited MIT today as part of his College Tour, a three-day trip to universities across the United States. In his talk, Gates emphasized the importance of getting more bright young people to innovate in critical areas such as global health, education, and energy—all areas where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is already investing or considering investing.

My full writeup of the talk is below, but first here’s a podcast recording of Gates’s talk, for anyone who wasn’t able to get to MIT (or squeeze into Kresge Auditorium) for the event.

Please try to ignore the typing sounds in the recording—that’s me taking notes.

Xconomy Podcast: Bill Gates Speaks at MIT
April 21, 2010

CLICK TO PLAY

Gates opened by joking that he’d promised his dad after dropping out of Harvard that he’d go back to college, and that he was now doing it, one day at a time. But he quickly segued into the serious subject of his talk, which was his conviction that schools like MIT are not turning out enough students who want to solve the kinds of big global problems that that Gates Foundation concentrates on. “Mostly I’ll talk about a question that fascinates, me, and that is, are the brightest minds focusing on the hardest problems?” Gates said. “To the degree that they’re not, how can we increase that?”

Gates argued that that are “five or six things that we haven’t put enough attention toward that would make a huge difference.” Among those, in his mind, are education, agriculture, nutrition, child health, reproductive health, and low-carbon energy sources. Gates said, only half jokingly, that his dream is to reach a day when high-IQ people spend their weekends arguing about the new teaching methods with the best outcomes, rather than which way the stock market is heading or who’s going to advance in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“We have lots of talent that could be shifted, at least to some degree, from sports, entertainment, and investing,” Gates said. “Even in the areas of innovation and science a lot of that focuses on the needs of the rich. There is a great deal of work on baldness cures….and while I know some people who would be easier to look at if they used a baldness drug, how can we have a shift?” Most of the key work on malaria, a disease that kills a million people every year, is done by just 100 scientists around the world, Gates pointed out.

Gates admitted in his talk that he himself didn’t choose a career “based on some list of great problems.” He said he “fell into what I ended up doing when I was 13 and 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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