Entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates received the Bower Award for Business Leadership on Thursday from the Franklin Institute. Earlier in the day, he spent 30 minutes answering questions from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter on such diverse issues as global health, nuclear energy and electronic privacy.
Gates, 54, co-founded the software giant Microsoft in 1975. He remains chairman of the corporation but now spends the bulk of his time on philanthropic work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spending billions to fight disease and poverty in developing countries and to improve schools in the United States.
Question: At Microsoft, you were known as a demanding, some would say relentless, leader. Now that you’ve embarked on finding solutions in fields where you are NOT an expert, is your management approach any different?
Answer: Basically, no. Even at Microsoft, you have people who know databases, people who know artificial intelligence, so you’re deciding how to back those teams with great people. …
The nice thing about the foundation is, we’re working on problems that the world wants to solve, like malaria. We can call in all the experts and get a diversity of opinion about, OK, which vaccine constructs should we go after, is this diagnostic worth doing? And the competitor is the disease, so that all the people who are smart about the disease are to some degree on the same side, working together. … In education, it just amazes me how little, essentially, R&D is done about great teaching. So the number of people you can pull in who have ideas on how you transfer skills to improve teachers, that’s even less people today than if you get together on malaria. It’s surprising but over time hopefully it will change, particularly as people are willing to try out new things.
Q: There seems to be a robust skepticism toward science among certain quarters in this country, with various factions questioning such things as vaccine safety, climate change and the theory of evolution. Do you think such views are on the rise? Why do they persist?
A: It’s tricky because science has gotten complicated and scientists have to describe what they know, their level of agreement, what their disagreements are on complex topics, and it has to be made interesting to the public.
And at least significant people, including politicians, need to pay attention and get involved, because avoiding problems and having long-term prosperity _ a lot of that will come from scientific insight. Not that scientists will always be right, but in terms of knowing what the possibilities are, and what you might have to guard for.
And so overall scientific literacy, whether it’s the general population or the politicians or whatever group you pick, it is a concern that sometimes it doesn’t seem that strong. Now perhaps with the Internet, putting better material out there, making things clearer, perhaps science can do its part to make it more digestible, more understandable …
Sometimes the raw numbers on scientific awareness make you wonder if the wrong policies will get picked because of that. The vaccines _ we’re the only country who’s got a declining vaccine rate. And you do get measles deaths that warn people about this.
And the anti-vaccine crowd is able to take even weak allegations and get a lot of visibility and drive a lot of fear. And we went 20 years with this notion of, “Did vaccines cause autism?” which there never really was any data that suggested that was true, and it took 20 years to make that clear. And still, if you surveyed the public at large, that negative impression is pretty widespread even to this day.
Q: One of your foundation’s education programs aims to encourage students to finish college. There’s a certain irony there. (Gates dropped out of Harvard to focus on Microsoft.)
A: True. … Even though I don’t have a real degree _ I have a lot of fake degrees _ I’m as much of a student as you’re likely to meet. …
Q: You may have heard of the school district in our area where officials were accused of inappropriately activating the webcams on computers that students took home. That’s a pretty unusual case. But more generally, with data mining and social media sites sharing their information with third parties, do you feel that society has adequate protections of personal privacy in place?
A: Privacy used to come by default, because you had to be there to see something, and information wasn’t easy to find.
Take, for example, that court cases are public. Well, if you had to go down and dig into the records to find them, they were semi-private. Now, where you can type in somebody’s name, and see the lurid testimony on their divorce case from 15 years ago, actually you’re forced to think, OK, what should the rules be? If I hire a bus driver, should I be able to see his history of traffic violations? …
Cameras are an example of this. London has chosen to warn people that they use a lot of cameras, and they’ve cut crime a lot. … We actually are in discussions with teachers about, are they willing to have webcams in the classroom and, so that passively you can visit the classroom, or that they can take part in the teaching where they want advice on how to calm their class down or deal with violence. …
We’re talking to teachers about, are they OK with that? How can we make that positive for everybody involved?
When you get into somebody’s home, then I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that’s an appropriate thing.
Q: You have invested in TerraPower, a company that seeks to build nuclear reactors that run on depleted uranium. Could you explain the pros and cons of such a design compared to a traditional reactor? (Gates said he has invested tens of millions personally, not through his foundation.)
A: There are many concepts (for next-generation nuclear power). Modular reactors, so-called liquid reactors. high-temperature reactors. The one I’m backing with TerraPower is very interesting because we can use the uranium.
Ninety-seven percent of uranium we don’t use (in traditional reactors), and we use that 97 percent. So our fuel is free. In fact, we can even use waste from normal reactors and burn it up.
So we can actually take what to them is a problem, which is, what do they do with their used fuel rods that are sitting there _ either in cooling pools or in dry casks on site _ because there’s no long-term storage?
We can actually take that and use it as the fuel in this new type of reactor. So we’ve solved the waste problem. …
And the big issue is, is our reactor cheaper to build? Which we say it is, but how do you prove that? You have to build one. That’s a financial problem, that’s a regulatory problem. So this is a design that on paper is phenomenal. But the challenge to actually get it built, prove the economics _ doing it is a high-risk activity, and so we’re talking to all sorts of people all over the world about partnering to actually build one of these things.
Q: The foundation has invested billions in tackling malaria, AIDS and other specific diseases. Recently the world’s effort to eradicate polio seems to have stalled a bit. How do you feel about this concept of focusing instead on broader health measures such as hygiene and sanitation, rather than specific diseases? Or does it have to be an either-or?
A: Well, we do both, and what you want to do is save lives for as low a cost as possible. And for many things, vaccines are the answer because they are very cheap and you don’t need trained personnel. …
There’s a lot we do in sanitation, and it’s not an area where many people invest money in. The rich world has gotten used to “flush,” where you have all this water, which is very expensive, and you’re using up lots of clean water. So the world needs something that’s as attractive as flush but isn’t flush. So we’re the biggest investor in new types of sanitation systems. …
Water is scarce, energy is scarce, building pipes is expensive. Our model, and this happens a lot _ the rich world does it in a way that just doesn’t work for the developing world. But we want something that’s as good. Cheap, doesn’t smell, convenient…
(With polio) we’re down a lot, and we only have a small number of countries left. So it’s one of these things where, with a little luck, we’ll get this thing done. … I’m a big believer that we need to get polio done.
Q: A couple of years ago, Brian Roberts of Comcast told us that you encouraged him to take a bigger role in philanthropy. What did you tell him? What do you think are the responsibilities of those who can afford to give back?
A: Well, I don’t deserve any credit for anything Brian’s done along those lines. Brian and I are good friends, and we compare notes about lots of things. I had breakfast, I got to see the Comcast building this morning. Very impressive. We went up to check out the view, the cafeteria. They have some NBC people over that they’re getting to know. …
The main thing I do is tell people I’m having fun giving money. And if you pick a cause and get involved, you can have a huge impact. And though the U.S. is the most philanthropic country in the world, it could be a lot more philanthropic. It’s nowhere near the limit.
So I hope just by saying that it’s fun, and sharing whatever has worked or not worked for us, if that encourages other people, great. You know, they deserve the credit for whatever they do.