The business of microbiology

Last night, Bill Gates spoke to a thousands of scientists at the opening night of the American Society for Microbiology conference. Over an hour, he discussed past and current work on various diseases including polio, malaria, tuberculosis, and others.

In each case, Gates’ language and perspective were far more financial than a typical keynote speech. Gates didn’t wonder how we can save a single life; he wondered how we can save the most lives possible with a limited number of dollars. Which disease is most cost-effective to target. And ultimately, how we can save a life for under $1000. “A little bit of investment done properly is catalytic,” Gates said.

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Flickr, Credit United States Mission Geneva. Photo taken at Meeting organized by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation at the WHO in 2011.

The language of cost effectiveness changed, when discussing eradication, though the emphasis on tracking outcomes per dollar was still clear. “Zero is a magic number,” Gates said, because future intervention costs are eliminated. While the last 1%, or 0.1%, of a disease is the most difficult to eliminate, it may also be the most important. Using polio as an example, he showed how 400,000 cases in 1985 has dropped to 16 so far in 2016—though the magic number still remains elusive, due largely to politics, instability, and infrastructure. Looking forward, Gates identified malaria and poor nutrition as global health problems that could be solved for under $1000 per life.

Hearing Bill Gates discuss the nuances of microbiology from a business perspective was eye-opening. I appreciated the focus on effective change per dollar, and on tracking “success metrics”. Patience is still necessary in research, yet hearing speakers like Gates inspires me to think beyond the day-to-day of academia.

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