Bill Gates, philanthropist and retired co-founder of Microsoft Corp., urged MIT students on Wednesday to focus their talent and energy on tackling the world's biggest challenges, including global health, poverty and education.
Gates' visit was part of a three-day tour of five universities that was intended to inspire students and faculty to focus on issues of inequity. Although he had completed similar college visits while at Microsoft, this trip marked Gates' first college tour since he assumed full-time duties at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation nearly two years ago. With a $33.5 billion endowment, the Seattle-based foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.
Titled "Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make A Difference," Gates's 30-minute presentation followed a private roundtable discussion with several faculty members about their work to fight global poverty. During that discussion, he also talked about how to expand MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW), which is a free online portal that provides access to about 1,900 MIT courses, and which Gates uses frequently. He then met with a handful of students to hear about their research in global health, poverty and education.
Gates was eager to learn during his visit, opening his presentation with a two-part question. "Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?" he asked a packed Kresge Auditorium. "And to the degree that they're not, how could we increase that, which I think could make a huge difference?"
Those questions were inspired by a weekend Gates recently spent with several friends who were eager to talk about two topics they found exciting: the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and financial markets. That got Gates thinking about how he could shift some of the focus of the brightest minds from these popular topics toward solving problems that plague poor countries, such as health, food, sanitation and governance, as well as more global issues like education and energy. Even in areas of scientific innovation, a lot of the focus remains geared toward the perceived needs of the rich, such as baldness drugs, Gates said.
Tackling vaccines and education
Gates showed only one graph during his talk: his "favorite chart in the world," which describes the decline in death rates of children below age five since 1960, when about 20 million children younger than five died. In 2009, that figured had dropped to about 8.8 million, a decline that Gates attributed largely to vaccinations. Despite the immense health benefit, however, less than one percent of medical spending goes toward funding vaccines, according to Gates.
In addition to global health, Gates talked about fledgling education systems, particularly in the U.S., where he said it would take some type of dramatic breakthrough to make it possible to make a great education available to all who want one, especially as states continue to cut education funding. He praised MIT for being at the forefront of improving access to education through technology, thanks to the OCW collection of online courses. He said he is a "super happy user" of the collection and has watched 11 of the 33 available video courses to date.
But other than improving access and developing a unified system to measure teacher effectiveness, Gates admitted that figuring out how to tackle education remains unclear, partly because the area has received very modest funding, and partly because of bureaucratic resistance to changing the status quo.
Still, Gates remains optimistic. "There are reasons to believe we can make progress, but that rate of progress will be somewhat proportional to how we draw people in," he said, sharing his dream that within a few years, he will engage in conversation with bright minds who are eager to discuss teaching.
"Yes, we might delay the invention of a new financial product by a few years, or we might even delay that baldness drug by a few years, but if it helps on the important problems, I think it's a good thing," he said.
On hamburgers and giving back
Gates answered several questions from students in the audience, including his views on the role of nuclear power, which he believes needs research funding and innovation. In response to a question about how it feels to be the richest person in the world, Gates said he still hasn't "found any burgers at any price that are better than McDonald's," and that after a person attains a certain net worth — a few million dollars — adding personal wealth doesn't mean much. Success becomes, at that point, "all about how you're going to give it back."
That message struck many of the students who attended the talk, including freshman Jason Elizalde, who was impressed with how easily Gates interacted with students before the event. "He was cracking jokes and just seems so down to Earth and like all that money hasn't gotten to him," he said.
Nada Hashmi, a PhD candidate at MIT's Sloan School of Management, was grateful for the feedback Gates gave her when she met with him before the event to discuss her business idea for developing a mobile healthcare system that would send vans to remote villages in Saudi Arabia and other areas in the Middle East and Asia to distribute free healthcare. "He forced me to think of the big picture and challenged me to tackle health issues at a global level," Hashmi said. "It was great to see how people who have made it big concern themselves with giving back. It is something we should all aspire to as we go through our lives."