Thursday, January 29, 2009

A letter from Bill Gates

I'll start off by saying I'm biased towards Bill Gates. Yes, I know he was the head of the "evil empire" that foisted Windows 95 on the world. But, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given away billions of dollars to help fight many global social and medical issues. In the last couple of years alone, the foundation has given tens of millions of dollars to the research institute I work for to fund malaria and HIV research.

The Gates Foundation has also used their money and influence to change the way scientists share their research data. In the past, it was customary for researchers to keep their findings relatively secret, sharing it amongst colleagues only for peer review before it was published. The data was not shared with the world until it was published, and that was how researchers could make sure that their data was not stolen and used by someone else who could then take the credit. The problem with that method is that there may be other scientists in others parts of the country or world working on similar research, or research that could compliment what hasn't yet been published. Because of the secrecy, these scientists probably don't know about the other complimentary research being performed and the connections don't happen until after the data is published. Only then does collaboration begin with valuable time being lost and potential avenues of exploration not being discovered until possibly years later.

The Gates Foundation is changing the way that happens. Many of the grants received by the institute I work for to research diseases are broken up amongst several research institutes. There are stipulations in the grants that the various institutes must share their data on an ongoing basis as the research is being done. The idea is that instead of having 5 scientists in 5 different institutes (for example), you would end up (in this scenario) with 25 scientists in many areas around the world collaborating on their research, comparing notes, and using that power to come to conclusions, and possibly cures, faster. It's a true sea change in the scientific community, and it seems to be working. That has affected my work in IT by needing to come up with ways for the researchers to share their work outside our institute. The challenge has been to maintain data integrity and redundancy while allowing multi-directional collaboration with researchers across the world. It's been an interesting but rewarding challenge.

Now, what prompted me to start this post: Bill Gates began working full-time for the foundation a year ago and has posted his first annual letter on their web site. There is some interesting information in the letter, both factual about improvements that have been made, but also information about the foundation's goals. Whatever you may think about Microsoft's software and Bill Gates' role in that, I have tremendous respect for him and what he doing with the foundation to change the world for the better. Yes, he's spending his money on himself and his family, as well he should. But, he's also putting billions of dollars towards eradicating deadly diseases, hunger, and improving education. Plus, I believe that he is truly passionate about the goals of the Gates Foundation. He's not just there for publicity or personal glory. His stated goal to wipe out HIV in his children's lifetimes is admirable, and I think he has the money and the drive to make it happen. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

You can read his letter here. There are also slideshows at the bottom of the page that are worth watching. Incidentally, in the second slideshow, "Progress In Global Health", there is an image of Bill at my place of work conferring with one of our scientists who studies leishmaniasis (at 00:44). Sadly I wasn't at work the day Bill visited, but I was there when his wife Melinda came to visit (twice now actually) and she is equally passionate about the foundation's goals. She also spoke at a yearly fundraser for my place of work and helped us raise about $700,000 in one night towards infectious disease research.

Yeah, I know this sounds like a Gates love fest, but I'm really passionate about the research done where I work and I'm glad to see someone like Gates (with his influence and deep pockets, and therefore ability to bring about change) is also passionate about it. As federal funding for scientific research has all but dried up in the last few years (thanks to GW Bush's anti-science platform), the Gates Foundation has stepped in and more than filled the gap so that the very important research can continue.

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