After he spoke at Kresge Auditorium, Bill Gates sat down with The Tech to talk more about his college tour, his philanthropy, and the philosophy behind it.
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As an ardent supporter of technology, Gates described his foundation as an innovation engine that takes risks and funds research, in addition to offering direct aid to the needy.
Though some have criticized the Gates Foundation for investing its endowment in corporate polluters that harm the health of the people it seeks to aid, Gates said that it is the foundation’s positive actions that have real effect, not its investment practices.
The Tech: So you’ve been on this three-day cross-country college tour, you spoke at Berkeley, Chicago, and you’re wrapping up this afternoon at Harvard. Why are you doing this? What is the message you’re trying to get out?
Bill Gates: Well it’s an opportunity for me to learn. I’m sitting down with scientist at each of the universities — also Stanford — and then just the questions I get, they’re very interesting. There are people: what are they worried about? You know, what are they disagreeing with? Or what do they see as an opportunity? But you know, we’re talking about what I call important problems and how we can get the best minds working on those problems. And I’m congratulating universities like MIT. You’ve done OpenCourseWare, you’ve got your energy initiative, you have a course on world poverty now, which is a fantastic thing. We have a lot of steps in the direction, but how do we ramp that up even more? I’m starting a dialogue about that because I think it will make a huge difference to get minds like those who get to go to MIT even more involved.
TT: Right, and the question that you kind of left unanswered during the talk is “how does that happen”?
BG: Yeah, and I don’t know the right answer. There are a lot of best practices that MIT and a lot of others have started, but what other ideas are there? And what are the barriers that hold people back? Is it awareness? Is it the economics? And how do we change it?
TT: This morning, you met with faculty, and you saw some student projects from the PSC, and from D-Lab. What did you learn? What was really interesting to you?
Gates: I saw lots of good projects, and I saw things that really relate to the developing world. What cheap reliable instruments should people have in clinics in the developing world? I saw people working on that. There’s some studies on malaria policies we’re trying out that students here are looking at the different varieties of how we might get the medicines out there in a better way. I saw six or seven projects, each of which I thought were quite strong.
TT: Did anything surprise you?
BG: Well, I had known those in advance. You know, there’s some like how can we use the cell phone for health care things. You know, nothing has come out of that yet, and this idea of what really can work in these conditions verses what’s the technology. That match up — you know and I keep thinking about how we can make people more aware of what the needs are and what’s practical because some of the ideas may not catch on. But there were really good ones. A lot of them had been out to really understand the tough delivery conditions.
TT: You’ve been on quite a journey, going from running Microsoft to chairing one of the world’s largest philanthropic organizations. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were our age?
BG: Well certainly I had no awareness of the depredations of poverty. I didn’t really understand the health issues, I didn’t understand the governance issues, the lack of infrastructure. It just wasn’t a focus for me. I was doing software and fortunately that has had positive effects, but I wish I had been more aware; I wish I had been able to take a course like the world poverty course and know about vaccines and know what a magical intervention those are.
TT: And having that knowledge, do you think your path would have changed?
BG: Not my path in some dramatic way. I would have been giving money to these causes a little bit earlier than when I started really in 1999, the serious philanthropy. And I would have done more. Now some of these projects take a long time, like a malaria vaccine, so you want to get it going. And the research phase, the early phase, is not as expensive as the trial phases, so I feel good that I did in my forties even when I was still full time at Microsoft. I was lucky enough to bring some great scientists in. Then when I moved to full time, the foundation wasn’t from scratch. We already had ten years of malaria vaccine work, and we already had a great staff of people, so I did some overlap — but I would have done more of that.
TT: You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of innovation and of taking chances on high-risk, high-reward projects — like the malaria vaccine — but there are lives that can be saved right now with simple interventions like bed nets and irrigation, so where do you find that balance?
BG: In terms of lives saved per dollar, there are a lot of things that we should be delivering, including some existing vaccines and new vaccines that we get here in the US — Rotavirus and Pneumococcus — all the kids in the US get those, but no kids in the developing world are benefiting from those, yet they have the disease pertinence, not, those things, aren’t as impactful in the medical environment that we live in. Those need to get out there. There are very few things that are as effective as vaccines. Bed nets are quite effective.
Agricultural interventions are less about health but are more about nutrition which has this huge effect on learning ability and freeing up people from subsistence labor, just on small holdings. So the agricultural things — there are some things there, but we’re going to have to invent to really make a dramatic difference. We can’t just take the tools that we have today. Our foundation tends to fund more of the upfront discovery work, and we’re a partner in delivery, but governmental funding is the biggest.
Take like delivering AIDS medicine: We did the pilot studies in Botswana to prove that you could deliver ARBs [Angiotensin II receptor blockers] in Africa and then PEPFAR [The US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] the US government program, which is five billion a year, which is way more than our whole foundation, just that one US government help program, just one country, came in and scaled up based on some of the lessons from that. With the vaccines, we fund, maybe fifteen percent. This government delivery system organization, whereas on the upstream, you know, malaria vaccine research would be a substantial percentage of that. So we’re playing to our strength, which is picking teams of scientists and sticking with them for over a decade — a decade of failures and successes.
TT: At Davos in 2008, you spoke of this idea of “creative capitalism,” which is your vision of corporations working to deliver innovations to those who need it, not necessarily just those who can pay. Could you explain how this works in practice? Some have said that this is an overly optimistic view of how business works.
BG: Well certainly the large companies have responded quite well, and we’ve even done within industries an independent report that will take say the pharmaceutical companies and say are they doing good work in these areas. And that’s been a spur for them to look a little bit. We’re not saying that they should tilt all their activities. If we can get four percent to the best innovators working on these diseases that aren’t as remunerative, that can make a huge difference. And in many cases, that will be up from zero percent. So we’re not asking them to completely go against the economic incentives they live under. We want them to thrive and be successful, and it’s actually a little unfortunate that the drug industry discovery rate has been low these last eight years. So pharma budgets actually are going down. Now vaccines is a subset of that, and actually has gone well. Some of these new vaccines are quite profitable for these companies. We are seeing an increase in that, which is for many of our things, it is the magic piece.
TT: Right, because this is sort of the same message that you’re sending to students as well, isn’t it?
BG: Right, so this creative capitalism is the message at the institutional level for businesses. And what I was talking about today is to get individuals to think about what motivates them: what would have drawn them in, why is it that these issues have appealed to them or have not appealed to them. And we need that individual interest in doing these things and then those institutional opportunities. So creative capitalism will let the people go out and get a great job and work on these things. And you really want those things to be in balance. You know, I wouldn’t want the pharma companies to say “Hey, nobody wants to work on this stuff.” That’s not the problem. I think the institutional side will be a limiting factor.
TT: Your foundation has an endowment of over 33 billion dollars — is it important to you to invest that money in socially responsible corporations? For instance, the LA Times reported in 2007 that some of the money for the foundation is invested in papermills and oil companies that pollute and harm the health of the people that you’re trying to benefit.
BG: Yeah, we actually have securities from a country that’s at war — we have US treasury securities in our foundation portfolio. Oh, it’s awful. You know, those guys, they polluted, there’s a lot of things I think they’ve done wrong. Now in terms of have we sort of decided to set up a judicial system that decides which car company, which oil company that kind of duplicates the laws of the various countries. No, we — we’re not doing that. We don’t invest in Sudan, and we don’t invest in tobacco companies and things like that. But when you take your resources and say “okay I want to score companies,” you have to say are you saving lives? If, take for example, the fact we don’t invest in tobacco companies: I would not claim to you that that has any effect at all. Now we fund anti-tobacco, anti-smoking things in a big way. We encourage the taxes to go up in China, they did that; we’re funding all these things in Africa. That’s where you save lives.
The fact that we put our capital in those companies, you know some people might not feel good about it, but it doesn’t save...that’s not where it is. No, we have not created this scoring system saying “should we own those treasury securities?” or not. Our expertise is in vaccines, it’s in education, and it’s in working with companies to get them to put energy in. In terms of getting corporations to be positive agents of change, I’d say we’ve done more of that than anyone. And they respond quite well, and that’s a million times more powerful per dollar then setting up this scoring system of where we put our money; we wouldn’t have any direct effect there. In egregious cases, yes, but in general, that’s not our role. That’s more of a governmental role.