From the New York Times, reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. writes about the lessons learned and how the foundation plans on changing strategy.
In an interview, Mr. Gates sounded somewhat chastened, saying several times, “We were naïve when we began.”
As an example, he cited the pursuit of vaccines that do not need refrigeration. “Back then, I thought: ‘Wow — we’ll have a bunch of thermostable vaccines by 2010.’ But we’re not even close to that. I’d be surprised if we have even one by 2015.”
He underestimated, he said, how long it takes to get a new product from the lab to clinical trials to low-cost manufacturing to acceptance in third-world countries.
In 2007, instead of making more multimillion-dollar grants, he started making hundreds of $100,000 ones.
“Now,” he said, only half-kidding, “you get a hundred grand if you even pretend you can cure AIDS.”
That little won’t buy a breakthrough, but it lets scientists “moonlight” by adding new goals to their existing grants, which saves the foundation a lot of winnowing. “And,” he added, “a scientist in a developing country can do a lot with $100,000.”
Over all, he said: “On drawing attention to ways that lives might be saved through scientific advances, I’d give us an A.
“But I thought some would be saving lives by now, and it’ll be more like in 10 years from now.”
Several scientists at the conference noted that Mr. Gates comes from the software industry, where computing power constantly doubles. Biology, by comparison, moves glacially — and microbes are less cooperative than electrons.
Biology also has a greater tendency to create progress-hindering controversy. For example, doing clinical trials on illiterate subjects in poor countries, which was once cheap and fast but ethically dubious, has become time-consuming and expensive as ethical standards have improved.
Also, poor countries lacking regulatory authorities and highly educated political and scientific elites may be nervous about being misused by Western scientists and careful about accepting new technologies.
Despite discoveries on many fronts, up to two-thirds of the grants either did not get renewed or may not in the near future, Mr. Gates estimated. In some cases, it was because they were not succeeding, either scientifically or because of political obstacles, or someone else had found a better path. In others, the foundation changed the goal.