The U.S. Department of Energy spent just $5.2 billion this year on R&D, less than the U.S. National Institutes of Health spends on cancer alone. Gates’s $2 billion is less a promise of gee-whiz breakthroughs than a statement. What Gates really wants is the U.S. government to double or even triple its energy-research funding.
“Gates isn't under any illusions that he's going to discover a silver bullet that is going to transform everything,” says the Yale University environmental historian Paul Sabin. “He sees himself as embedded in the network and system that is structured by government policy. He is trying to shift that system.”
The question is whether he can.
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Recent history abounds with examples of rich, influential people who sought social, scientific, and technological transformation. But each of them differs from Gates in important ways.
The most obvious precedents are overtly political. Ours is a golden age of wealth-purchasing influence; and if Tom Steyer's $57 million in campaign donations didn't move the needle for climate during the last elections, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have found better returns on their own investments. Gates, however, tends to be apolitical, at least in terms of directly spending on the electoral process. His money goes to labs and companies, not politicians' pockets.
In the scientific realm, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a noted philanthropist in his own right, co-founded the Allen Insitute for Brain Science in 2003. Allen has given $500 million to the Institute, which conducts basic research into neurological function; its leaders helped catalyze the BRAIN Initiative, the high-profile federal effort to develop new neuroscience tools. That, however, was a lower-stakes game than energy innovation. Existing brain-imaging tools were already regarded as primitive and there wasn't much opposition.
In the 20th century, feminist philanthropist Katherine McCormick almost single-handedly funded development of the first birth-control bill. And before her, Mary Lasker co-founded the Lasker foundation with her husband, Albert, to support medical research. The Lasker foundation funded research directly, and similar to Gates, also pushed for expanded federal funding. Indeed, Mary Lasker is widely recognized as the motivating force behind the 1971 National Cancer Act, which launched the so-called war on that disease.
Gates could learn a thing or two from Lasker, who put up her own money, but also deployed considerable social finesse. She overhauled the American Cancer Society, brought scientists to Congress to explain their work, and enlisted the help of celebrities. Among them was legendary advice columnist Ann Landers, who used her own influence to organize a public letter-writing campaign that sent 500,000 missives to Congress.