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Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make a Difference

04/21/2010 11:30 AM Kresge
William H. Gates, III, Co"founder Microsoft Corporation,Co"Chair Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Description: The world's most intractable problems might be cracked if more of our "brightest minds" could be tempted to work on them, asserts Bill Gates. Too many graduates of top universities like MIT find it infinitely more satisfying to deal in derivatives, he says, or lucrative areas of medical science like "baldness drugs." Gates, in his full"time job as foundation head, is pondering what might happen if "all that IQ and talent could be shifted to some degree" into the areas he's deeply engaged in, such as global health and education.

Gates describes some key issues his foundation is pursuing, where there is both "a great need and opportunity." One critical area in what Gates calls the "world's report card" is childhood deaths. Mortality of children under five has fallen dramatically, from 20 million in 1960 to nine million last year. This reduction, says Gates, has been driven primarily by vaccinations for measles, smallpox and other scourges. While "vaccines get less than 1% of the focus on medical spending, they are responsible for a really incredible amount of health benefits," says Gates. They are not only very cost"effective over time, but have added features: "What's mind"blowing is the effect that improved health has on population growth." Improving family health, by such measures as vaccines, paradoxically ends up limiting family size. Today, we're "down to the bottom billion in the poverty trap," says Gates, and by improving vaccine distribution and developing vaccines for other diseases, we can further reduce early childhood deaths and extend associated benefits to other parts of the world.

Gates is also engaged in the problem of education, particularly in this country, where "the system is working very poorly." With 30% of high school kids dropping out, and those who complete high school inadequately educated for college, some kind of breakthrough is required, says Gates. He wants to examine the quality of K"12 teaching and identify and disseminate best practices. Some of his test sites deploy classroom webcams to help identify constructive methods. Gates is also investigating the application of online, interactive technology to motivate kids, and to help teachers teach better. He views MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative as a step in the right direction, part of what he hopes will prove a much larger transformation of instruction throughout America's schools.

Whether eliminating childhood deaths, improving the nation's education system, or tackling sustainable energy or sanitation systems worldwide, there are reasons to believe we can make progress, says Gates. But the rate of progress depends on "the rate we can bring people inget the brightest people onto the big problems."

About the Speaker(s): Bill Gates began his major philanthropic efforts in 1994, when he created the William H. Gates Foundation, which focused on global health. Three years later, he and wife Melinda created the Gates Library Foundation, which worked to bring public access computers with Internet connections to libraries in the United States. Its name changed to the Gates Learning Foundation in 1999 to reflect its focus on ensuring that low"income minority students are prepared for college and have the means to attend. In 2000, the two organizations merged into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose mission is to expand opportunity to the world's most disadvantaged people.

Gates was born in Seattle in 1955. He dropped out of Harvard in his junior year to devote his energies full"time to Microsoft. He and childhood friend Paul Allen believed that computers would soon have a place in every home and office, and this vision of personal computing helped launch the software industry and led to Microsoft's astonishing success. Gates also founded Corbis, a comprehensive digital archive of art and photography from public and private collections around the globe.

In 1999, Gates wrote Business @ the Speed of Thought, a book that shows how computer technology can solve business problems in fundamentally new ways. The book was published in 25 languages and is available in more than 60 countries. Gates' previous book, The Road Ahead, published in 1995, held the No. 1 spot on the New York Times' bestseller list for seven weeks.

In 1999, Gates donated $20 million to MIT for construction of the William H. Gates Building, which is part of the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences.

Host(s): Office of the President, Office of the President

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