13 June 2009

i meet bill gates

Bill and Melinda Gates were in Cambridge yesterday to receive honorary degrees, and they generously gave most of their morning to a Q and A session with about 200 Gates Scholars. The whole affair was organized almost down to the minute and had the feel of a protocol-laden diplomatic reception. Prior to the Q and A session, those of us on the Scholars Council were lucky enough to have about 15 minutes of mingling time with the Gates in a separate room. At one point we were standing in two circles, one around each of them, and I was in a position to hear both conversations. Bill was holding forth to me and a few others about the most effective treatments for malaria, while Melinda asked questions about life at Cambridge and whether we identified more with our colleges or as Gates Scholars. I thought it was an interesting testimony to their yin-and-yang approach to the foundation, which would come out in the Q and A session to come. Then there was a group photo, which I'll hopefully be able to post once I get it (we weren't allowed to bring our own cameras to any part of the event).

I joked to one of the Council members that it would probably be the only time in most of our lives when we would cause a hush to fall over a crowded room, but that's exactly what happened as we took our seats at the front of the hall a few minutes before the Gates arrived. They both gave a brief introduction to the work of their foundation, with Melinda expanding on their philosophy that "all lives have equal value" and Bill giving a rather abstract, Buffett-esque reflection on capitalism, wealth, and the failure of the market to account for the interests of the poor in medical research. Then they began taking pre-selected questions from Scholars in the audience. The first had to do with how Bill identifies which new technologies have the most promise. With a hat tip to luck, uncertainty and randomness, he predicted that robotics will be the next big, lifestyle-changing technological frontier.

The most interesting part of the exchange, though, was on the subject of their philanthropic work. Somebody noted that Warren Buffett wants his donation to the Gates foundation to be entirely spent down within 10 years of his death, and asked if the Gates would like their Foundation to live perpetually on an endowment or be spent down in the same way. Melinda was very adamant that they don't want the Foundation to live forever, in part because they don't know if their priorities will still make sense in a hundred years time. She then delivered the zinger of the day: "who knows what the big problems will be in 100 years-- maybe it will be climate change, maybe it'll be something the robots are doing."

Bill Gates strikes me as a hardcore utilitarian, and he said the new initiatives they consider is evaluated against the opportunity cost of their bread-and-butter vaccination work, which saves lives at the rate of about $2,000 per person. Of course, that spurred a lot of later discussion--mostly of the lighthearted-but-with-sober-undertones variety--among the Scholars about the tradeoff between funding our studies and saving children's lives. My living allowance alone, about £9,000, could have saved 6 or 7 kids, to say nothing of my tuition and fees. Of course, this kind of brutal analysis can be applied to just about anything, and you can very quickly destroy the rationale for everything you use money for that's not writing a check to UNICEF. (This is part of the reason I'm not a utilitarian.) I'm not convinced that Bill Gates personally believes the scholarship to be a good tradeoff, and he conceded that it's about the only thing that they do without a quantifiable impact.

It also occurred to me that the Gates Foundation is perhaps the closest thing a large, rich-world institution can get to being a "Searcher" in the Bill Easterly terminology of Planners vs. Searchers. Beyond keeping to their focal areas of global health, development and education, I really don't sense any methodological or ideological commitments. Melinda spoke to the Foundation's willingness to make risky bets, seemingly referencing a remark she made earlier about how Bill "bet the company" on Windows. (She worked for Microsoft before they were married.) One of the lesser-known aspects of their philanthropy is $100,000 micro-grants to scientists pursuing unproven avenues of research, which allow those scientists to see if the research is promising enough to seek bigger funding from other sources. According to Bill, if even one of their reviewers rates a research proposal as his or her favorite it gets funded, no questions asked. I think they are genuinely focused on what works, constantly on the lookout for innovative new ideas, and guided by the evidence. Bill Gates' thought process may sound rather bloodless, but it sure as hell works: the ruthless discipline that made him the world's richest man is now being turned against the problems facing the world's poor. If I were malaria, I'd be scared.

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