Bill Gates on Disease, Teachers and Mosquitos

Bill Gates returned to TED this year to give an update on what his foundation had been doing for the last year, along with how he thinks the world can start to solve two of the biggest problems in the world today: disease and lack of good education.  Gates’ presentation can be described in one word: Optimism.

Bill Gates’ TED Talk

The first half deals with malaria.  I had not realized that malaria was a problem in the US and other rich countries up until the 1950s.  It killed over 5m people worldwide during the 1930s and was not completely eradicated in the US until the 1970s.  Now, it only affects poorer countries, which happen to be around the equator.  Gates says that “more money is spent on baldness drugs than malaria drugs” each year. 

Most people would agree that our priorities are clearly misplaced.  This situation is a clear example of a problem that the market cannot solve completely on its own.  Poor people cannot provide the profit motive necessary for big drug companies to develop the cures necessary to eliminate malaria worldwide.  The Gates foundation, other charities and some rich governments should step in to fill the void.  Tax credits, grants and other incentives should be used to stimulate innovation in areas where there are not sure economic profits, but provide real social benefits.

I would also like to see a drug company cut their ad budget by 50% and use those billions to invest in a cure for malaria or another one of the treatable mass diseases, as drug companies now spend about an equal amount on advertising as they do investing in new drugs.  Imagine a big drug company cutting half of its Viagra, Propecia or Zantac ad budget to focus on developing a new malaria drug.

Imagine the positive (free) press that a company could get by doing this.  They could craft their new image around being an altruistic drug company and even run ads in the US touting their contributions to global health care.  Even a 25% cut in advertising in the US to invest in Malaria would be substantial.  This solution is probably too controversial for conservative drug companies, but it would be interesting to see.

I would also like to see one car company stop advertising completely and pass on the savings to consumers, or just keep the savings.  Everyone knows cars and brands of cars, so why bother advertising?  But that is another post for another time.

The second half of Gates’ talk focuses on what makes a teacher a good teacher.  Through research funded by the Gates Foundation, they found that a top 25% teacher improves student performance on standardized tests by 10%.  Unfortunately, the teacher’s performance is not rewarded.  In fact, teachers who many not be very good, but want to learn cannot even learn from good teachers because of contracts.

Gates touts the KIPP academy in Houston, another branch of the KIPP School that I talked about in a previous post, as a model for the future.  He says that the combination of giving children a chance to work hard, along with analysis of teacher performance produces results.  96% of children at the KIPP academy in Houston go to college.

I would love to see some sort of reward mechanism implemented for great teachers to help compensate them for their work.  Gates says that the good teachers are more likely to leave their jobs to change profession than bad teachers, so some sort of reward system is needed.  Gates is hopeful that many of these innovations can be brought to public schools in America, which will better help us compete internationally.