Skip to Content

Bill Gates and His Moonshot

The rocket’s supposed to be moving, and it probably is, but everyone knows that you can’t see that with the naked eye. Not at first. The announcer said “Lift-off” – well, that probably happened sometime during the lunch hour, it’s easy to miss – and the first thing you look for is the exhaust starting to ooze out, jelly-like, from beneath the engines, slowly spreading across the pad. If you pick a spot on the rocket itself and look away for a while, you can eventually see that it’s rising up into the air, but it’s like the minute hand on a clock. You can only tell once it’s happened. Glacially, the astronauts creep into the sky on their month-long journey up to Earth orbit, and next spring, by which time they’ll nearly have made it around the earth twice, they’ll make the fateful decision to fire the second-stage rockets that will send them, over the next eight years of their lives, to the moon.

Welcome to Apollo program, folks. Not the way you remember it? All I’ve done is make the same mistake that Bill Gates has; I just made it in the other direction. Gates has come out with a call for leadership and innovation, which is what he does, but while I applaud where his heart is I have wonder what happened to his head. Here’s Keith Robison taking him to task on the same grounds I am, and he’s absolutely right. Gates says that over the next ten years, if we just learn the lessons of the Apollo moon program, we can:

  1. Provide everyone on earth with affordable energy without contributing to climate change.
  2. Develop a vaccine for HIV and a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.
  3. Protect the world from future health epidemics, which might be more infectious than Ebola and more deadly than Zika.
  4. Give every student and teacher new tools so all students get a world-class education.

Admirable goals. But this is gasbaggery. These proposals are a mixture of engineering, basic science, politics, economics, and more, and to go on about how all we need to get on them is to “accelerate innovation with leadership” and “transform our view of what’s possible” is embarrassing. Bill Gates is a very intelligent person, and he and his foundation have done a lot of good in the world. But he didn’t do any of it by writing stuff like this.

Robison’s post zeroes in on the call to cure Alzheimer’s disease, and that’s what I used to slow down the Saturn V above. If Bill Gates is thinking about a cure for neurodegenerative disease in ten years, he’d better have a bottle of a great drug candidate in his pocket right now, because time’s-a-wasting. In fact, that timeline is absurd. It’s going to take ten years in the clinic just to see if anything works against Alzheimer’s. And that’s not because we don’t have “innovative leadership”; that’s the pace at which Alzheimer’s disease develops in human tissue. Giving speeches will not help. A human brain can make of Gates’ editorial what it will, but the neurons themselves are immune to calls to dream big and seize the future.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against the goals stated above – I’m not, of course. What I’m against is mixing all of them together (and they’re very different) and pretending that they’re all subject to the same kind of solution. And when that “solution” itself is pixie dust (sprinkle faster! sprinkle harder!) it’s even harder to take. I’m very much in favor of his call to do more basic research; I think that’s a great idea. But to tie that to talk of accomplishing all those goals inside ten years, if we just really believe in ourselves, is hard to take. I know, I know, we went to the moon in that time, but it’s way past time that everyone realized that getting to the moon was (in comparison, and only in comparison) not all that hard. I do remember watching Apollo 11 (I was seven), and I never would have imagined saying this when I was growing up, but the older I get the more I think that the Apollo program, for all its accomplishments, actually did a lot of damage. And I mean damage to space flight (the hangover was awful), but I especially mean damage to human perceptions of what science is and how you go about solving hard problems with it.

As for Bill Gates, well, he’s right in step with his old company about the timelines needed for this kind of thing. (That link contains the rest of my case against people from the hardware/software worlds coming in to tell us all how to fix Alzheimer’s and cancer). By these standards, the Gates Foundation should have cured malaria some time ago. But I don’t want to be too much of a pain about this – if you looks at Gates’ actions, instead of reading his words, he’s been doing just the kind of research spending that is needed to solve problems like this. As far as I know, he didn’t announce a malaria moonshot; he just got in there and decided where the money would best be spent and starting funding people, and good for him for doing it. Unless I missed it, he didn’t talk about curing malaria in X years or go around telling everyone how innovative leadership would give those Plasmodium parasites the what-for, because after all, we went to the moon, didn’t we? I like that Bill Gates a hell of a lot more than the one who wrote this editorial.

56 comments on “Bill Gates and His Moonshot”

  1. Hugo says:

    I think your remark regarding the damage done by the Apollo program might be a bit misplaced. The problem is that people think engineering approaches will work on complicated and biological scientific problems. If the Apollo program wasn’t there, people would draw on the Manhattan program, if that wasn’t done, people would start the “Wright to Flight” program against Alzheimers.

  2. MAZ says:

    Maybe a Marsshot is the better analogy. It seems that we have all the technology and engineering skills. However, getting there is apparently much harder than getting to the moon. NASA has been working on this for several years and predicts to get humans to Mars in the 2030s. Hopefully we will have been able to solve the challenges you listed before a human sets foot on Mars.

    1. No, getting to Mars is an engineering challenge. Can we design using today’s technology an approach that would work to place and return astronauts on Mars with some modest method development? It would be expensive & risky as hell, but would have a significant chance of success. Possible trajectories are well-worked out. We’ve sent machines there. We’ve had a permanent laboratory in space. It’s mostly a question of keeping the humans alive that long and keeping the machinery working — but these are all problems you could solve with brute force engineering (e.g. take all the food and spare parts you could conceivably need). I’m not suggesting society would ever fund this approach, but it would work.

      Contrast this with any of the serious problems in medicine. – we simply don’t know any solution. It isn’t a matter of scaling or miniaturizing or coming up with better solutions or economically feasible ones — we don’t have a solution yet nor a clear path to one. We don’t have any blueprint

      1. MAZ says:

        Keith, you are right, we have sent machines to Mars; and we have also cured many diseases in mice that we still can’t cure in humans. As you say, there are many problems that could be solved with brute force, however, the question is if society would fund it. I believe for many diseases the same holds true. Substitute “brute force” with “sufficient funding” and you will be able to address many challenges, but certainly not all.

        1. Byrel Mitchell says:

          The primary issue is the maturity of the field. Rocket science, at the time of the apollo mission, operated on reasonably well-understood principles. It was highly susceptible to empirical engineering; we understand all the basic concepts, and understand how to fully experimentally characterize a specific solution. It’s even more mature today, to the point where it’s almost completely engineerable without experiment.

          Contrast this with drug development. Drugs are developed partially by empirical engineering, and partially by brute-force experimentation. We don’t understand how significant parts of the system works, so we’re routinely surprised by efficacy, selectiveness, etc. being substantially different from our models.

          Drugs simply aren’t subject to the same sort of funding=win that worked for rocketry. It’s not that they’re harder; its that we don’t know enough about the how and why of them to use that funding with anything close to the same efficiency.

    2. zero says:

      Several decades, and more nearly a century. Von Braun laid out plans for manned Mars missions in the 40’s, with meticulous design projections and periodic revisions into the 70’s. Competing architectures have been debated, simulated and tested to varying degrees almost since the beginning. Many essential technologies have already been tested as part of the current manned space exploration programs worldwide. If NASA puts boots on Mars in the 2030’s it will have been a 90-year endeavor.
      The same could be said for the moon; people wrote about the possibility before the turn of the century and were developing rocketry in the early 1900’s. From conception to execution the project took about 70 years. Most of the expense was in that last decade, but only because of competition and national pride; it could have been done enormously more cheaply and sustainably had we had another 20-30 years of patience to spend.
      Compare with AD. Does anyone have a remotely plausible suggestion for how it could be cured? My impression is no, just some informed guesses about symptoms that might be important to the process. We’re probably only a few decades into a century problem, but unlike rocketry we know precious little about the underlying mechanisms of biology. If it only takes us another 40 years to cure AD (after learning the fundamental biology involved) then that will make the achievements of the space race pale in comparison.

      1. Anon says:

        In order to escape the gravity and return from Mars, you would need to send an entire rocket, all the fuel and the launch pad itself as cargo from earth, which would need a rocket the size of Manhattan, or a thousand individual one-way trips. Rather wasteful, just to get back to where you came from!

        1. Mr. Eldritch says:

          Slightly off-topic, but you’ve missed a third option: Make the fuel for the return trip on the Martian surface, from Martian resources. There are reasonably scaleable synthesis pathways to methane/oxygen or hydrogen/oxygen propellant from resources believed to be available on Mars.
          Further savings are possible if you make a practice trip to Phobos beforehand and set up infrastructure there; it also may have the necessary resources to make fuel (it appears to be of carbonaceous composition, and low density suggests potential reservoirs of ice). Orbital refueling, as well as providing massive savings on how much fuel you need to pack, when combined with surface refueling also lets you conveniently separate the Earth/Mars transfer craft and a smaller lander you can send over first.

          For that matter, the ability to refuel in Earth orbit would make a huge difference.

          Because the fuel needed grows exponentially with the amount of delta-v you have to pack into the rocket at launch, this conversely means that any fuel you don’t have to pack with you can mean massive reductions in how big your rocket has to be. If your lander only ever has to hold enough fuel to make it from Mars’ surface to Phobos, and it’s allowed to arrive near-empty, it can be quite reasonably sized indeed!

          Likewise, if your transfer craft only has to be able to make it from Earth orbit to Mars orbit, and can arrive near-empty, you’ve really massively cut how much fuel it needs to carry.

          For later missions, you can put up an Aldrin cycler, which is an orbit that passes nearby to both Mars and Earth. This means you can put all your shielding, life support, living space, etc. into a big reusable block that will keep cycling back and forth on their own with minimal fuel, and only need to spend the fuel to accelerate and decelerate your astronauts and their cargo.

          Unfortunately, the legacy of Apollo means nobody can move past the balls-out boots-on-the-ground Saturn-V-but-bigger-this-time damn-the-expenses-there’s-commies-to-beat approach.

          1. Li Zhi says:

            Your 3rd option is science-fiction. It may or may not be possible. Actually, your option is a list of several, which means you don’t really know which are feasible and which not. I’m fairly confident that you vastly underestimate the amount of infrastructure we’d need to build for any type of refinery on Mars. Until a concrete and detailed proposal exists (in writing) there’s no way to compare the cost of transporting all the fuel from Earth (or LEO) to Mars and the cost to make fuel there (your Phobos concept is completely blue sky). My guess is that setting up manufacturing on Mars will be tens or hundreds of times more expensive than sending complete return materials from Earth – for a single mission there-and-back.

          2. Anon says:

            Agreed. It’s complete BS.

            The whole point of rocket fuel, is that it works by thrust, spitting out great mass at high speed (conservation of momentum), and that relies on high-energy organic rocket propellants. But, as far as I’m aware, organic compounds are not abundant on Mars, and there is not enough solar power on Mars to make high energy propellants. So, all the fuel and infrastructure would have to be transported from earth, and that is just not feasible at any cost that would be considered “worth the benefit”.

            So enough of the sci-fi crap. Get real!

          3. Anon says:

            The only reason why we are able to return safely from the moon, is it has low enough gravity to land and take off with very little fuel. And we wouldn’t even be able to do that if earth didn’t have an atmosphere to slow down our return.

            Mars has both high gravity AND virtually no atmosphere, so landing and taking off again would be impossible.

          4. srp says:

            Actually, Robert Zubrin has worked out the details of this fuel-manufacture process and built and tested prototype reactors here on earth. Even NASA concedes that this makes sense but they are too risk-averse to chance human astronauts on the reliability of such a remote manufacturing process.
            http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/marsconcepts2012/pdf/4101.pdf

          5. Scott says:

            Replying to Anon and Li Zhi:

            Hydrogen and oxygen make quite respectable chemical rocket fuels, it’s what the Shuttle and the upper stages of the Saturn 5 used. And those would be VERY accessible if you can find water. Phobos would be a good place to start looking. having a nuclear reactor directly heat hydrogen (a la Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) would be better, but people freak out as soon as you mention the “N-word”.

            As far as landing on Mars goes, it does have an atmosphere, so you can aerobrake to slow down. I’d rather have the fuel plant on the surface of Mars, landing a good 200 tons of rocket fuel would be more exciting than I’d want to do. And I’m actually one of the preferred Mars candidates, being a mechanic and a former submarine crewman.

  3. p says:

    I think Green Energy could be a moonshot sort of program. We know a lot more about that and it’s mostly engineering. You’d need to completely overhaul how we store and distribute energy and, certainly, there would be stumbles. But the basic knowledge is there.

    The same is true, as you say, of the Apollo program. In 1960 we knew how rockets worked and could build them. Essentially, you just needed to be able to build bigger ones. That’s a gross simplification but there wasn’t a lot of new fundamental knowledge there.

    Another example is the Manhattan Project, which, to me, is more impressive than Apollo. But imagine the president ordered American scientists to create an atomic bomb in 1912 rather than 1942. They lacked a lot of fundamental knowledge that was needed for the bomb’s construction. They’d have spent a lot of years just stumbling around in the dark no matter how much was spent.

    All of which is to say, I guess, that I agree with you.

    1. John Wayne says:

      I’m going to have to disagree with your assertion solving our energy problems is like going to the moon; solving our energy problems is more like getting everybody to go to the moon. There are complicated policy decisions that need to be addressed to facilitate worldwide change. If you look at the history of energy production, emergent technologies are very slow to take hold. The government (historically, the navy) has had a central role in the transformation of energy usage. There are fairly large potential underlying issues with the sorts of energy production that are in vogue at the moment.

      1. How much energy does it take to produce (cradle to grave) a solar panel, and how much energy does that solar panel produce during it’s expected lifetime? Does anybody know this? I can’t seem to find this information.
      2. Same question with wind turbines. I asked a friend-of-a-friend that works as a physicist at a wind turbine company; he didn’t know.
      3. Did you know that most of the rare earth magnets in wind turbines are made from minerals mined in central China? Are we confident that these mining techniques are environmentally responsible?
      4. Is there enough rare earth magnet material available on earth for this to even make a dent in our energy needs? Same question for silicon (or whatever future solar panels are made of.)
      5. For a lot of these schemes, we need a scaleable way to store power produced at non-peak times for later use.
      6. If the French can produce electricity with nuclear power, so can we. Do you know how much nuclear material we have available leftover from the cold war? It is a crime not to use it responsibly. We may need to use nuclear power as a crutch to get us to the next big thing. Yeah, there are challenges, but it is nothing compared the issues with petroleum production.

      If I was Bill Gates, I’d make this my mission. If we want to have clean energy in 100 years, we need to invent it soon (possible already). I’m growing concerned that the marketing people have grabbed onto the demand of ‘green’ products; many of them are anything but good for our long term survival. For example, most folks who have looked at the timeline of energy savings of hybrid cars conclude that they aren’t actually a good idea.

      I apologize for my ranting tone. This is a personal thing with me – people want to argue about things that are tangentially important (climate change, etc.) when we should be talking about which scaleable energy production techniques we are going to do.

      1. superdupa says:

        I don’t know the answer to all your questions, but I remember in 2014 or 2015 there was a news story about solar panels finally passing the threshold of producing more energy over their lifetime than was required to make them. So now it is just a matter of making enough of them.

      2. Hugo says:

        1. & 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_invested, 6.8 (photovoltaics) and 18.0 (wind). You need to work on your Google skills.
        3. Where do you think Chinese coal comes from? You’ll need less rare-earth metals than coal if you switch to wind turbines.
        4. There’s enough sand on earth to supply silicon for all the solar panels we’d ever want. Neodymium also shouldn’t be a problem, the name rare-earth metals doesn’t have anything to do with how common these elements are. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_elements_in_Earth's_crust
        5. Sure, we need to build a bit more capacity than we actually need, but using hydro during the night and solar during the day will get us a long way. Most power is actually used during the day anyway. https://energy-charts.de/power_de.htm
        6. It’s sad. Japan also has equal to 50% of the worlds total photovoltaic capacity in idle nuclear plants.

        It’s happening and it’s happening faster as stuff is getting cheaper.

        1. DSP says:

          EROEI isn’t the same thing. He seems to be asking about embodied energy, which is much harder to calculate and not generally known for energy sources, or, really, much of anything. For example, although there is certainly plenty of sand in the world, sand is pretty thoroughly burnt to hell and it’s very difficult – energy intensive, that is – to unburn it into useful elemental silicon. It’s not at all clear that we’re making good long-term investments.

      3. metaphysician says:

        On the matter of nuclear power, I vaguely recall reading that there are enough uranium deposits known and estimated to provide all the power for the world for something on the order of a thousand years, minimum. Fissionable thorium is even more common, and reprocessing would stretch the usefulness of each ton of fuel enormously.

        Basically, nuclear fission could easily provide enough energy for far beyond any relevant time horizon. By the time we used up even a tenth of the available fuel, we’d either have some other energy source ( fusion, orbital solar, something far more exotic ), or else be able to mine fissionables offworld.

        1. Kent G. Budge says:

          Any proposal for sustainable energy that ignores nuclear power does not deserve to be taken seriously.

          Your estimate is roughly in line with one I made a few years back. If you are willing to breed fuel, and reprocess spent fuel, yeah. We have centuries’ worth of nuclear power. Perhaps even enough time to finally make fusion work. 😉

      4. MCS says:

        As far as I can see, the best measure of energy input is cost. Thus, the best measure of energy return is profit. Every other measure depends on an “energy audit” conducted by someone that combines ignorance with a political agenda.

        Last I heard, solar, both voltaic and thermo-electric and wind power averaged less than 10% nameplate over time. Don’t forget, anything made in China is produced by burning the worst brown coal that will burn and we’ll find out the true economic cost when the Chinese financial “system” collapses.

        I’ll believe in “green” energy when it actually produces a profit on the free market as it is, rather than some perfect system where every cost is explicitly allocated.

  4. Isidore says:

    When discussing and bringing up as an example the Apollo program, people either do not know or conveniently forget that it took more than forty years from the day Robert Goddard fired his liquid-fuelled rocket to the moon landing, and, arguably, without the push by the military use of rocketry during WWII it might have taken even longer. Many of the projects Mr. Gates outlines are barely out of their respective Goddard stages or not even there yet.

  5. Andy says:

    A new word to add to my vocabulary “gasbaggery”! very good, was it coined @GSK by any chance?

    1. fume hood says:

      no – it’s a derivative of bag-gassery, which was originally coined @GSK and currently perpetuated by R&D management.

      ps. I agree with those above that a Green Energy “moon shot” makes a lot more sense in terms of near term attainability, overall human/global health and economic sustainability, as well as return on investment.

      1. loupgarous says:

        bag-assery is a nice term. I grew up in the agricultural belt west of New Orleans, and sugar cane was big. Well, only part of sugar cane is sugar. The rest is cellulose and a lot of plant matter that winds up in big brown piles outside the sugar refinery, called bagasse. It smells like you’d expect a big brown pile of organic waste to smell.

        Except our bagasse was worth something – there was a plant just outside New Orleans to make it into ceiling tile, and other plants here and there that made it into paper.

  6. Hap says:

    The first problem with lots of these is deciding that they are important enough to spend lots of money working on. Gates and his foundation can start, but ultimately we as a people have to decide that these targets are worth working on. At least part of the problem (with points 2 and 3, and maybe the others) is that we don’t know if what is being asked for (or implicitly promised) is doable. If you promise what you can’t deliver (or what you don’t know is possible to deliver) then you risk not being able to do other things because your word isn’t good (because you either couldn’t deliver what you promised or didn’t care whether you could or not). If we can’t bear that sort of honesty, well, we’re probably screwed.

    With 1, nuclear is a (semi-)temporary solution (intermediate time frame – 100 years at expected rates rather than current ones?) – we have materials for a while but if we shift to them, energy use will increase and they will run out more rapidly. We also need to be committed to establishing a place to put the waste, and to establish where to put plants (preferably, “not just where the poor/people of unfavored color live”). We probably also need to be willing to pay more – which is probably going to happen with 1, anyway.

    1. Oblarg says:

      A lot of the problems with nuclear go away if you’re willing to use fast neutron reactors. Unfortunately, the proliferation issues involved mean that this would probably have to have significant military oversight, and whether or not that’s politically feasible, I dunno.

      Well-implemented breeder reactors would solve the energy problem for a good long time, though, with nothing but existing technology.

      1. Hap says:

        I thought that breeders didn’t work so well – I know France has/had SuperPhenix, but that it worked at best intermittently and with a lot of maintenance. If that isn’t true, or the problems can be easily fixed, then that would be true, but I don’t know. Wired (salt lick required) had articles on smaller nuclear reactors that the Chinese were supposed to developing in which the fuel was encased and was at relatively low concentration so that meltdown and proliferation were not possible, but that was at least ten years ago (so that if the design worked, I assume the Chinese would be using them for power and not fighting over the Spratlys).

        You still have to convince people that nuclear is not a curse word, which is a social engineering problem.

        1. zero says:

          China is capable of simultaneously implementing nuclear power and having Spratley spats. They build plenty of big nameplate plants.

          We don’t necessarily have to pay more for nuclear. If we eliminated subsidies for fossil fuels they would be competed out of the picture pretty quickly. As it is, more people die of cancer caused by radioactive coal fly ash in a year (some 13,000 premature deaths in the US alone in 2010) than from all nuclear accidents combined (less than 8,000, nearly all of them in former USSR territory). (Some studies extrapolate much higher figures for Chernobyl and Kyshtym exposures but even the worst case numbers are better than coal.)

          Breeders are not inherently different than thermal reactors in terms of the environment inside the core. It’s a very challenging environment for materials science when a valve or a pipe has to last at least 60 years at high temperature, pressure and neutron flux, and possibly hostile corrosive coolants.

          Thorium is proliferation-resistant and would not require military oversight. There is about four times as much thorium available as uranium. No enrichment would be needed, so there is more like 16-32 times as much useful material that can be economically extracted. Thorium breeder reactors can burn depleted uranium and some designs can burn spent fuel from other reactors, so there are thousands of tons of already-mined material available. The combination of thorium and uranium readily available today would supply our energy needs for thousands of years, and there is much more of the stuff available on Earth and in space.

          The trouble is the incredibly tight regulatory environment and the fact that polluting technologies like coal still receive massive subsidies. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build, so the financing costs are high; a project may not break even for two or three decades. Because a lot of the expense is unrelated to the power output, it makes financial sense to build the most powerful core possible. This is the challenge inherent in small ~30MWe plants: the regulatory and financial environment is geared toward 3-4GWe plants with two to four cores. The engineering is essentially done but politics, finance and the court of public opinion are still opposed to nuclear. Some day we might have sealed, self-contained municipal power reactors near cities of 200,000 or more for base load with PV and wind for intermittent power and stored hydro for peak loads.

          1. Shazbot says:

            There’s very little a coal mine owner wants more than a wind farm. That metal ain’t energy-cheap, and you need a lot of it to produce relatively little energy.

            Fossil fuels are awesome substances that are extremely energy dense and useful. If they were going to be competed out in a fair market, it would have already happened.

            Too much hype and too few facts, up and down the line.

        2. loupgarous says:

          When I lived in Denver, just fifty miles or so north of us, we had the Ft. St.Vrain breeder reactor, one of General Atomics’ High-Temperature Gas Reactors, and while (after teething problems) it worked okay, those teething problems led to corrosion (due to water used as a lubricant in seals of the helium coolant loop entering the primary cooling loop and corroding the inner works of the reactor) which – when it required replacing large and expensive parts of the reactor, caused the company operating the plant to decommission it and go over to natural gas (with an innovative two-stage steam secondary that allows the plant to make three times the electricity as the original HTGR did).

          Main lesson learned – don’t expect a power company and the people paying electrical rates to subsidize pilot plant breeder reactors. GA and the Department of Energy ought to have been the white knights paying for big expenses due to design problems, especially as this was a relatively low-output proof-of-concept reactor. If the whole idea was to make power AND learn how to make better breeder reactors, General Atomics ought to have stepped up and paid for the damages caused by design deficiencies.

    2. Ted says:

      Hi:

      Bill has actually put a great deal of his own money into addressing the problems of energy availability without exacerbating the problems of high-grade nuclear material proliferation.

      http://terrapower.com/pages/technology

      It won’t be finished in 10 years, but you have to start somewhere…

      -t

  7. beating a dead horse says:

    It’s pretty clear if you peruse the website of the past that the Gates Foundation has ambitious (read: impossible) goals, but it’s also pretty clear to anyone familiar with the foundation that the mantra is more along the lines of, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

    While it’s one thing to say something like this as a company trying to maximize ROI and shareholder value, it’s another thing to say this as a philanthropic organization. Don’t confuse the two. For one, setting a high bar is better at predicting success than setting low, 100% achievable ones. Second, the Gates Foundation expects, in theory, to operate ad infinitum, so it doesn’t matter whether or not they achieve their goals – they will just keep supporting scientists until it happens.

    I have no affiliation with any kind of philanthropic organization, but it’s a mistake to interchange lofty goals for a public company with lofty goals from a foundation.

    1. Hap says:

      If you work on your own, aiming high is good, If you need other people to help, then you need to be clear on what you need their help for and the achievability and (rough) time frame of your goals; people have lots of choices on what to spend those resources on and if they’re going to work with you, they need to know that you know what you’re doing and can be trusted (so that the resources won’t be wasted). Promising what you can’t deliver (or have no idea if you can deliver) makes it less likely that people will be willing to support those goals in general, because they don’t want either to waste their money or their time, and they don’t want to be taken in again. So, while philanthropy can aim at goals that businesses may not be able to, if they use social capital to do it, they have to respect why people contribute it, and what might make them willing or unwilling to contribute it again.

      1. tangent says:

        If you work on your own, aiming high is good

        Well though, even working on your own, problems come up similar to how you describe — if you have sloppy predictions, you can’t tell how well you’re executing, and you don’t have crisp feedback to improve either execution or prediction. Past self and future self have to work together.

        And in the end, aiming high is only okay if there’s good value in where your shot actually lands. If you can’t predict where it will land, you can’t predict the value. So you have no way to guess if aiming somewhere else would give better results. Aiming high is fine when there’s only one course of action and you might as well get on with it, i.e. when no aiming to do.

    2. RM says:

      “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

      Sort of emblematic of the disconnect under discussion. The moon is less than two light seconds away. The nearest stars are over 4 light *years* away.

      Sure, if you miss the moon you might land among the stars: It’ll just take you 60 million times longer than anticipated.

      1. Isidore says:

        “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

        I never understood why this statement has been touted so avidly. I mean, if you miss the moon you’ll end up dying, terrified and alone, from suffocation or dehydration. But it’s nice to know that some, like Bill Gates, are happy to experiment with people landing among the stars.

        1. Hap says:

          Because we seem to have lost our aspirations, for the most part. Of course, just having aspirations really isn’t enough (you need to have an idea of what you can do, and what you could do with others, and have the ability and willingness to do them), but if you don’t have aspirations, then it’s hard to do anything extraordinary.

    3. Macc says:

      “If you aim for the moon…”
      My usual reply (may be robbed from Wally?) is “Eagles may fly, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines”

  8. Anon says:

    Well, the good news is that the Gates Foundation may be moving away from reforming education in the United States. In that arena it has a history of supporting things that sound good but don’t really work. And a history of ignoring people who have shown that their ideas do work.

    Too bad it wastes so much money,

    1. loupgarous says:

      You just have to learn how to speak “progressive”.

      “Revolutionizing higher education” doesn’t mean what you’d think it would – getting a good, cheap laptop to every kid, and a pulse-oximeter on his or her ear to document the fact he or she’s on the thing, and an operating system and Web browser that only support courseware. And courseware that actually seduces kids into learning.

      In Progressiveland, “revolutionizing higher education” means giving the education unions everything on their Christmas list, and the kids wind up sucking the hind teat.

      1. tangent says:

        Your hobbyhorse is pointed in the wrong direction for the conversation you’ve dropped it into. The Gates Foundation’s education efforts have been known for directions contrary to “progressive education” and to teachers’ unions. With exceptions, but on the whole it hasn’t been “let’s hire more teachers and have them work with students.”

        Actually it has more often been along your lines. You might like some of their efforts for computers and seductive courseware.

        Though I don’t know if they’ve had your plan of tethering students with a pulse ox. Maybe they’re planning on courseware even more seductive than yours is, so the students educate themselves voluntarily?

  9. cthulhu says:

    As an actual rocket scientist, I am 100% certain that Apollo was a large net negative to exploration and exploitation of space. It succeeded admirably at its one requirement, which was to beat the USSR to the moon. But for cost and schedule reasons, it did so using an architecture that was completely unsustainable for anything other than, well, beating the USSR to the moon.

    I’m sure that there are things that can be done to improve the lot of humanity, and energy research is certainly an area that could benefit from much greater investment in things like advanced nuclear – if, say, the LFTR type of reactor can actually be turned into a practical commercial power source, then for all intents and purposes we will have cheap unlimited energy with minimal byproducts. But the Apollo analogy needs to die in a fire.

    1. Li Zhi says:

      Really? you’re a “scientist” and yet are 100% certain of your “facts”? Sad.

      1. Kent G. Budge says:

        Li,

        I’m prepared to tolerate his hyperbole about being 100% certain, since I am better than 90% certain he’s right. Rocket scientists tend to have a lot of engineer in them, and the likelihood he’s right about Apollo is within engineering tolerance of 100% certain.

  10. loupgarous says:

    I’ve used Microsoft operating systems most of my professional lifetime. What bothers me about Gates’s ten-year timeline is vaccines and other medications that get pushed out the door in ten years without adequate safety and efficacy studies.

    A dud vaccine’s as bad as one that gives you Guillain-Barre syndrome. And we’ve already got dud treatments for Parkinsonism and Alzheimer’s – palliative treatments, not cures. The scary thing is when we get a Windows Vista first release in medication – and instead of a Blue Screen of Death, we get a flat line where there ought to be normal sinus rhythm.

    Mr. Gates is strong on short time lines, weak on quality assurance. Unfortunately for us, he’s got the kind of political clout to get a real cowboy or cowgirl appointed FDA commissioner to help him push medications through NDA without proper safety studies, and forget black box warnings when people start dying or being maimed by bad drugs. We’ll just give the families Microsoft Surfaces to distract them, right?

    Gates may mean well, but if he thinks the long timelines in drug development are just due to institutional inertia, he’s parading his ignorance.

    But he has a valid point about education. He and his old company’s technological base could revolutionize education, make it something kids look forward to, not dread. And a well-educated America could overcome anything that comes its way.

    1. Kent G. Budge says:

      “But he has a valid point about education. He and his old company’s technological base could revolutionize education, make it something kids look forward to, not dread. And a well-educated America could overcome anything that comes its way.”

      This assumes education is simply a technological problem; that we know how to provide a good education, if only we had the technology to bring its cost down to where we could provide it for everyone. I find this highly dubious.

      I’m not sure there’s even agreement on what a good education is. My guess is that just about everyone here would take it as given that a good education is a solid STEM education. And I certainly favor competent STEM education. But I think there is very good evidence that a substantial fraction of the population will never be able to take a first-rate STEM education, because of the M part. An awful lot of people simply don’t get math, and I am not at all confident we have any idea how to change that.

      And the assumption that STEM == good is itself dubious. There was a time when education was not merely also about instilling republican virtue, but primarily about instilling republican virtue. (That’s a very-small-r “republican”, I hasten to add.) I think our political elite, by and large, have an inadequate grasp of STEM concepts, but I think they have an even more inadequate grasp of basic ethics, morality, and prudence. (In fairness, so do most of the voters electing them.) That’s not a problem technology is going to solve.

      1. loupgarous says:

        You very adeptly went to the core of the problem. The process of education’s been defined not by the “customer” (those parts of society who’d like many qualified applicants for even technician-level jobs, let alone STEM college graduates, the parents of American youth, and those of us who want a strong economy because it’s the only way to pay for all the goodies both candidates for President are promising voters, much less the free primary and secondary public education itself and a national defense).

        Unfortunately, the party now running the White House is joined at the hip with teachers’ unions and other groups who see no reason why young Americans need to graduate from high school able to attend college without remedial coursework and with the skills needed to work in an increasingly technical workplace.

        If Microsoft and the Zuckerbergs really want to improve the health of Americans, they could do much worse than revolutionizing education in our nation. That may mean giving the public education lobby serious competition by developing 12 years of primary and secondary courseware capable of allowing American families to reliably homeschool their children. The result would be a dramatic increase in the pool of technically-competent workers for American industry.

        These companies know the sort of employees they want; they spend millions lobbying Congress for more H1b visas to bring them here from overseas. Congress ought to phase out the H1b visa program with a pointed hint to the tech sector that if they need skilled labor here in America, then it behooves them to educate Americans for those jobs. This lets the customers of the education process define the education process directly, and gives them “skin in the game” to see that the process works as they’d like it to.

  11. matt says:

    I think you are being a bit harsh, here. Gates’ observation about Kennedy’s role in kicking off the moon program IS applicable to the current political season.

    Kennedy did shrewdly and carefully pick an achievable goal, as chosen and reported to him by his experts (at NASA). This, despite not being terribly interested in space personally: he saw the impact it was having on people across the country, he knew the crucial role it was playing militarily, and he chose to harness that popular excitement toward a civilian program and a stretch, reachable goal. OF COURSE it was a mix of political, economic, technological, and science factors: that’s precisely where a President can try to exert influence and try to lead.

    It’s popular in space circles to deride it as a “boots and flags” mission, that is, something that aimed merely for an achievement rather than a sustained push. I think that’s unfair. The money being spent for the Vietnam War killed NASA’s budget, as did the rest of the political climate in the late 1960s, not (primarily) a letdown over achieving that goal. And Nixon further gutted the program beyond even those two factors.

    Regarding the rest of your criticism, I think it’s unfounded too. He says the crucial thing is setting out a clear, achievable, and measurable goal. But, as you’ve seen, this list of four AREAS is not the precise and measurable thing he’s asking a President to propose. It is, instead, a set of areas where in his experience progress may be made, and in his judgment progress is greatly needed.

    I’m guessing he did not intend to say, for example, that neurodegenerative diseases would be cured in ten years. What he is saying, in my opinion, is that a political leader could establish a clear, measurable, stretch goal that would accomplish a great deal in ten years. Those are similar to the internal goals his foundation sets for something like malaria, I would guess. Perhaps a metric like a certain number of different approaches reaching the clinic within ten years.

    And similarly for energy, you could conceive a plan for example that would develop a low-cost PV solution and a “Marshall Plan” to roll it out, along with training and infrastructure development, to certain countries in Africa. Saving “Solyndras” from Chinese price-dumping, developing US manufacturing, while potentially revolutionizing weaker economies, etc. Or develop a carbon/methane handling (sequestration?) plan for US generation companies, so not only can they offer it domestically, but compete globally.

    So, where you see absurd impossibility, you are probably thinking of a wrong stretch goal, something like Kennedy proposing to visit Alpha Centauri. But there are other, more practical goals that can be chosen, and they might well make great progress.

    Here’s a thought project: compare George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration with Elon Musk’s introduction of his Interplanetary Transport System and proposal for colonizing Mars.

  12. Kazoo Chemist says:

    Quote “Here’s a thought project: compare George Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration with Elon Musk’s introduction of his Interplanetary Transport System and proposal for colonizing Mars.”

    Why not compare Musk’s hyping of his Mars initiative to his success with his autonomous cars?

    Death on the highway in a Tesla….

    http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-autopilot-photo-20160726-snap-story.html

    Invest at your own risk….

    http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/03/tesla-stock-is-not-a-buy-no-matter-what-earnings-say-commentary.html

    I will believe in Musk’s commitment to this program when he announces that he will be strapped in a seat on the first rocket he launches towards Mars.

    Musk, like Gates, talks a really great vision, but unfortunately reality has a nasty habit of getting in the way. Both would be far better served by focusing on goals that can be achieved in real time (decades). There are many of those out there. To be fair to Gates, he has been a champion and financial angel to many great initiatives. His most recent list of goals has taken him over the top.

  13. J Severs says:

    I would settle for getting Microsoft Word’s bugs and glitches fixed in 10 years.

    1. loupgarous says:

      Or being able to turn Cortana off on the latest version of Windows 10. I’ve got things I could be doing with those clock cycles.

  14. dearieme says:

    Yeah, yeah, everything depends on leadership and, presumably, will.

    Back to the thirties, eh?

  15. Li Zhi says:

    This is somewhat about top-down vs bottom-up invention/innovation/change.
    Aspirational goals serve a purpose, but are useless when it comes to implementation.

  16. Kaleberg says:

    I think Gates totally underestimates what it takes for medical breakthroughs, but his heart is in the right place. One of our problems that started in the late 1970s and was entrenched in the 1980s was that no one was willing to think big about the future. Most thinking big about the future falls flat, but without it we don’t make any push forwards.

    Sure Musk’s yammering about a private sector Mars mission is demi-idiocy, but it is high time we got past the Space Shuttle and developed new rocket and manned flight technology. It’s like solar power in China. The Chinese 10th plan, for example, prioritized solar power and dramatically dropped the cost of solar panels. Some problems do get solved by throwing money at them.

    Since the 1980s we’ve been stuck in a no we can’t, industrial policy is evil, the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers rut. It’s actually good to see a bit of a push against it, even if only from the private sector. I don’t expect miracle cures, but more medical research funding means more different approaches being tried rather than entire generations of researchers being marginalized. I think the Gate Foundation has done more harm than good in education, but it’s good see some forward thinking again.

  17. Paul McGettigan says:

    There’s a word for this phenomenon -“solutionism” – Noun. solutionism ‎ The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature.

Comments are closed.