Bill Gates shows where the deep pockets are

ScreenHunter_04 Feb. 08 21.40

Cross-posted from “The Flying PhD“, written by Dr Andrew Weatherall who in addition to researching traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an anaesthetist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and works part-time at Careflight.

There was a period of time where I only used the name Bill Gates thus: “F#@$ing Bill Gates! Bloody Microsoft hunk of junk!” The accompanying visual was most likely to be the blue screen of death.

These days I have entirely different feelings about him. I’m likely to be singing his praises when I’m hanging in a nursing home. Through his new career in philanthropy (along with the very impressive Melinda Gates), he has proven that he can use his ridiculous level of wealth and formidable mind to make a real impact in world health, education and development. They’ve already achieved amazing things through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Chances are, when we solve problems like malaria, the Gates Foundation will have been a big part of that story.

So, why the love letter? Well, the world’s richest geek was on Q and A last night – see video below or click here. Beyond having a very high word count on “research”, as he is clearly of the view that research is the key to progress, there’s a couple of things about his philanthropy that are interesting.

The first is the level of engagement with the subject. It is very evident that he is not just throwing money from Olympus. He is seriously engaged with the details of what they’re doing, and the difference they hope to make. Seeing a multibillionaire who clearly has some concept of the challenges facing the broader world, or the potential benefits of addressing global health and equality issues was more refreshing than a faux Scandinavian deodorant ad. It also provided a chance to reflect on all the Australian überwealthy similarly engaging with the challenges facing the world, beyond just reminding us that African miners want to work for $2 a day. Yep, just think of all of them at a big party (and feel free to grab that spiky tumbleweed rolling on by to use for an acupuncture session and release the negative energy that’s building up).

The other interesting thing was the foundation’s readiness to consider “blue sky” ideas – bolt from the blue thoughts that might seem outlandish but just maybe have a chance of making a difference. Precisely the sorts of ideas that get suffocated by the oppressive national competitive grants system.

I can’t help but reflect again on the need for novel ideas and opportunities to fund the research that will drive the development of cultures everywhere. In an environment where government-funded options are ever more competitive, and ever more pressured by political realities, what other options are out there?

Could direct philanthropy or charity organisations provide the way forward? Well, there are some groups out there supporting research (the Brain Foundation, the Ramaciotti Foundation etc). I can’t think of any particular big ticket philanthropists engaging with research in a similar fashion though.  The other challenge for not for profit organisations is the way we think about charities and how they should raise and spend their money (and an extra disclosure here, I spend some of my time working at CareFlight, a registered charity which devotes some of the money it raises to research).

That issue is a complex one itself, but I can’t do better than refer anyone who has a spare 20 minutes to watch this awesome TED talk from Dan Pallotta (seriously, clear 20 minutes) in which he very clearly states exactly the obstacles we put in the way of charities growing and carrying out their goals. Most particularly, we tend to focus on the proportional amount they spend on “frontline services” rather than growing bigger projects or re-investing to raise larger overall amounts. For the US (and, I believe the UK), total donations to charity as a proportion of GDP haven’t changed much for 20-30 years. So as much as there might be an interest from NFPs to get involved, there are issues that need to be addressed.

What about other novel ideas? We need to start exploring different mechanisms to fund research, or at least expand the range of opportunities for researchers to raise funds. Hell I’d even consider a special research economic exclusion zone if it would help. If social impact bonds (sometimes called social benefit bonds) can be used to fund preventive programs or services, could this model be used to fund basic research (or other forms of research)? Or wouldn’t it be good if more clever people who understand economics came up with suggestions like this from Chris Becker where he lays out preliminary thoughts for other sorts of investment bonds to support research (with some of the fancy economics lingo that makes my eyes glaze over when I go to see the accountant, but I like the concept).

The whole area of social impact bonds is pretty interesting anyway. Having been lucky enough to meet the very clever Emma Tomkinson a while back, you’ll find her blog has a plethora of stuff related to these instruments and examples of where they’ve been used. It’s well worth a look.

The point is that research funding options in Oz (and I’m sure lots of other places) remain a bit monochromatic in their offering. There are plenty of novel ideas coming from researchers. Is it asking too much for a few clever types to exercise some imagination and deliver on new ways to fund research? Anybody out there got a clever idea?

Comments

  1. Even being aware of his efforts, when they become the focal point of an hours discussion they certainly are impressive.

    I don’t think we’ve seen anything along this scale since Carnegie gave away his fortune.

    Isn’t Buffet’s lot gunna be tipped in with Gates’ as well?

  2. migtronixMEMBER

    I still can’t stand him and his has such a formidable brain why did you ever say “piece of junk windows” and are probably using a Macintosh these days?

    I still think he is a crook and the whole B&MGF is a eugenics fraud (his father was head of Planned Parenthood, on which board incidentally his mother one day got talking to an exec of big blue (IBM for the young ones) and Hey Presto, little big blue was born (m$)…

    I like the financial/economics talk but not this pontification — how about giving free windows server licenses to charities? No too much money to be made with a monopolist position? Yeah that’s why all the good NGO’s use Linux/FOSS these days…

    • Yeah, but Steve Jobs was an angel right?

      One thing the fanboys will never admit is that Apple is Microsoft now, and engage in anti-competitive practises that go way beyond what Microsoft did 10-15 years ago.

      Whatever Gates did in the past, he’s well and truly made up for it (and then some) which is more than you can say for most gazillionaires.

      • I agree. I bet Bill feels more than a little guilty that he made his billions by operating at the very edge of the law and being ruthless. Not that you’d expect him to do anything else. He wouldn’t be where he is without having done that. But now that he’s made the money, he’s happy to give a bit back. I reckon in the overall washup, he comes out on top.

      • “Apple is Microsoft now, and engage in anti-competitive practises that go way beyond what Microsoft did 10-15 years ago.”
        This absolutely. Microsoft was fairly close to being broken up for bundling IE with windows.
        Let that sink in people – giving out a free browser nearly ended microsoft as we know it – whereas apple’s entire business model is built around absolutely blatant tying and they do it with near impunity.

        You could at least argue that bundling IE with windows was doing people a favour – I run IE all the time when I get a new PC… I need to have a browser ready to go so I can download firefox or chrome!
        – if Microsoft had been following apple’s standard operating procedure, they’d not only have bundled IE with windows – they’d have had to tweak windows so Netscape wouldn’t run at all and insert copious clauses into the windows EULA threatening dire legal consequences upon anybody who attempted make Netscape work under windows or otherwise use a non-ie browser on ‘their’ OS.

      • migtronixMEMBER

        No way man Steve was lot more innovative to be sure but I wouldn’t touch a mac, I’ve been using Linux for 13 years

    • This gets my goat. The man has done significantly more for the world than certain incredibly wealthy religious organizations and leaders whose views the parent apparently shares.

  3. Sir William Tyree.

    Not as wealthy as Gates, but possibly proportionally more generous, and is also happy to throw money at blue sky research.

  4. Rumplestatskin

    Bill had some very wise responses to some of the accusing questions.

    On the whole I’m not sure whether I’m happy or sad about this video. I’m happy Bill and Melinda are trying to leave a positive legacy. But I am sad that society, either through government or other means, had not coordinated to invest in some of this high-return research and simple sanitation investments (polio, malaria research for example). He spent $40million funding malaria research and became the biggest funder in the world!

    I’d also commend him for being involved on the ground and really trying to understand the local circumstances and politics of the situations the foundation gets involved with.

    • It the current day and age, yes. Probably because they’ve captured most of it.

      Tell me, universal primary education.

      Public or Private money?

      Then expanded to universal secondary education;

      Public or Private money?

      The most efficient health care systems in the world…

      Public or Private money?

      Funding that started ARPANet?

      Public or Private money?

      • +100,Rusty Penny.

        And in addition, Stephanovic, is NASA and all its advanced research and achievements with public or private money?

  5. Whats Gate’d on about… the hole foreign aid thingy… its a loan… cough debt… leveraged about 1 = 8.

    Is he worried about repayment in a global economic down turn?

  6. Even “giving away” half his “fortune” he’s still just an over mouthy Uber wealthy Yank with very deep pockets.

    F&%$# Me D#@%$ ! This guy gets all the tax breaks on his so called “Donations” -it makes him feel good & he gets to travel the World telling fairy stories – and most of you think he’s great ?? huh?

    Even after giving half he’s probably still the richest Ba$#@rd on earth .

    OK so our own F Rich B should act a bit more restrained rather than mouthing off about what average Ozzies should be doing. I’d like to see a cash strapped Aust Govt take all of her assets over 500M$ — She didn’t work for it that’s for sure.Grates –rhymes with Gate’s

    • Even “giving away” half his “fortune” he’s still just an over mouthy Uber wealthy Yank with very deep pockets.

      Rich he is.

      F&%$# Me D#@%$ ! This guy gets all the tax breaks on his so called “Donations” -it makes him feel good & he gets to travel the World telling fairy stories – and most of you think he’s great ?? huh?

      Giving away his wealth tax free, is still giving 100% of it away.

      He doesn’t get money rebated to him.

      What it means is that the charity receives 100%, instead of 70% and government 30%.

      Attempting to eradicate disease and malnutrition is a very noble cause.

      So that leaves your chagrin at comfortable air travel…..

      hmmm.

      Even after giving half he’s probably still the richest Ba$#@rd on earth.

      In all reality, he isn’t, and has never been the richest person on earth. Anyone who knows the HK circle, and then sees HK names appear in the Forbes 200 list thinks to themselves “you know, that HK blokes is really worth much more than that”

      OK so our own F Rich B should act a bit more restrained rather than mouthing off about what average Ozzies should be doing. I’d like to see a cash strapped Aust Govt take all of her assets over 500M$ — She didn’t work for it that’s for sure.Grates –rhymes with Gate’s

      Well that was a rant of truely special calibre.