LINDAU, Germany—Microsoft founder Bill Gates thrilled a crowd of 566 young researchers from 77 countries gathered here June 26 for opening ceremony of the 61st Meeting of Nobel Laureates, and he wasted no time in telling them what to do.
His advice was borne of his own trajectory from technologist to billionaire to philanthropist. As Microsoft became successful, Gates learned of the challenges faced by those not born in “the same wealthy country that I was,” he said. And that knowledge then helped him figure out what to do with his wealth and how to give it back to people in an effective way. His focus turned to improving the health, agriculture and innovation prospects for the world’s poorest people.
“I admonish you to consider the needs of the poorest in the work that you do,” he told the scientists. “The advances there will be particularly important in coming years and without your attention they will not take place.” Gates made his comments following his induction into the honorary senate of the Foundation of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.
During a subsequent roundtable discussion on the topic of global health, Gates outlined more of his positions on the role of scientists in society, and how foundations like his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can help.
“One thing that is unique about foundations is they can afford to take big risks,” he said, adding that it is “incumbent upon them to do so. That is their unique property versus other institutions.”
His foundation aims at backing high-risk science, as well as programs on the ground, such as an effort to make polio the second disease to be eliminated by humankind (the first being smallpox). There are now 3,000 new polio cases annually, he said, down from 300,000 in 1988. A lot of the challenge for the final 1 percent of new cases is figuring out why the vaccine fails in some children and finding ways to work with mothers in places such as northwestern Pakistan to encourage them to bring their children in to see a health care worker.
Vaccines are an effective way to target his foundation dollars, Gates said, due to their ease of delivery, in many parts of the world. Children are already making medical visits for routine inoculations, enabling health care workers to just “add another shot” at a cost of $1 if programs are cleverly conceived.
Drug development works well for addressing the major diseases of wealthy nations, Gates said, but not the urgent health needs in the developing world, Gates said. People in the developing world are at far higher risk for contracting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as tropical diseases that are associated with poverty.
“The true market failure is in diseases of the poorest countries because the voice of those people in the marketplace is silent,” he said. “So that is why you get [a situation where] male pattern baldness gets 10 times the research [attention] that malaria gets.”
Sandra Chishimba of the Malaria Research Trust and Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute called for the education and empowerment of young people so they could “come up with their own research institutes,” rather than only relying on Western countries to come to the aid of the developing world. Chisimba’s research includes finding ways to address malaria in her homeland of Zambia, where she faced her own battles with the disease.
Ada Yonath, a chemistry laureate who also participated in the roundtable, advised the crowd to focus more basic and applied research to help with the problem of antibiotic resistance, which she called “almost the most frightening and biggest problem of modern medicine.”
She urged researchers to take risks and pursue their intellectual passions, even in the face of skepticism and doubt that a problem can be solved—as she did to solve the structure of ribosomes.
Yonath also encouraged scientists not to worry about whether their research immediately bore fruits to address global health. Basic research on how the immune system works, for instance, will always eventually lead scientists to a position where they can help with applied problems.
Gates agreed, saying that many of the research team his foundation funds start with scientists with expertise in say imaging or nanotechnology who had “no idea that their basic thinking could apply to global health problems.”