Gates was eager to learn during his visit, opening his presentation with a two-part question. "Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?" he asked a packed Kresge Auditorium. "And to the degree that they're not, how could we increase that, which I think could make a huge difference?"
Those questions were inspired by a weekend Gates recently spent with several friends who were eager to talk about two topics they found exciting: the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and financial markets. That got Gates thinking about how he could shift some of the focus of the brightest minds from these popular topics toward solving problems that plague poor countries, such as health, food, sanitation and governance, as well as more global issues like education and energy. Even in areas of scientific innovation, a lot of the focus remains geared toward the perceived needs of the rich, such as baldness drugs, Gates said.
Whoo! It is exciting to hear him talk about this.
Gates also wrote an op-ed piece with Chad Holliday, the CEO emeritus of DuPont, about the need for major investment in clean energy technology. They give persuasive explanations for why the private sector cannot do this alone.
But our country is neglecting a field central to our national prospect and security: energy. Although the information technology and pharmaceutical industries spend 5 to 15 percent of their revenue on research and development each year, U.S. companies' spending on energy R&D has averaged only about one-quarter of 1 percent of revenue over the past 15 years.
And despite talk about the need for "21st-century" energy sources, federal spending on clean energy research -- less than $3 billion -- is also relatively small. Compare that with roughly $30 billion that the U.S. government annually spends on health research and $80 billion on defense research and development.