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Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make a Difference by Bill Gates

Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make a Difference

by Bill Gates

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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.


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