I am a little obsessed with fertilizer. I mean I’m fascinated with its role, not with using it. I go to meetings where it’s a serious topic of conversation. I read books about its benefits and the problems with overusing it. It’s the kind of topic I have to remind myself not to talk about too much at cocktail parties, since most people don’t find it as interesting as I do.
But like anyone with a mild obsession, I think mine is entirely justified. Two out of every five people on Earth today owe their lives to the higher crop outputs that fertilizer has made possible. It helped fuel the Green Revolution, an explosion of agricultural productivity that lifted hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty.
These days I get to spend a lot of time trying to advance innovation that improves people’s lives in the same way that fertilizer did. Let me reiterate this: A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Another example: Polio cases are down more than 99 percent in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them.
Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better. It can be easy to conclude otherwise—as I write this essay, more than 100,000 people have died in a civil war in Syria, and big problems like climate change are bearing down on us with no simple solution in sight. But if you take the long view, by almost any measure of progress we are living in history’s greatest era. Wars are becoming less frequent. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century. More children than ever are going to primary school. The world is better than it has ever been.
But it is still not as good as we wish. If we want to accelerate progress, we need to actively pursue the same kind of breakthroughs achieved by Haber, Sabin, and Salk. It’s a simple fact: Innovation makes the world better—and more innovation equals faster progress. That belief drives the work my wife, Melinda, and I are doing through our foundation.
WE WENT ON A SAFARI TO SEE WILD ANIMALS BUT ENDED UP GETTING OUR FIRST SUSTAINED LOOK AT EXTREME POVERTY. WE WERE SHOCKED.
Of course, not all innovation is the same. We want to give our wealth back to society in a way that has the most impact, and so we look for opportunities to invest for the largest returns. That means tackling the world’s biggest problems and funding the most likely solutions. That’s an even greater challenge than it sounds. I don’t have a magic formula for prioritizing the world’s problems.
You could make a good case for poverty, disease, hunger, war, poor education, bad governance, political instability, weak trade, or mistreatment of women. Melinda and I have focused on poverty and disease globally, and on education in the US. We picked those issues by starting with an idea we learned from our parents: Everyone’s life has equal value. If you begin with that premise, you quickly see where the world acts as though some lives aren’t worth as much as others. That’s where you can make the greatest difference, where every dollar you spend is liable to have the greatest impact.
I have known since my early thirties that I was going to give my wealth back to society. The success of Microsoft provided me with an enormous fortune, and I felt responsible for using it in a thoughtful way. I had read a lot about how governments underinvest in basic scientific research. I thought, that’s a big mistake. If we don’t give scientists the room to deepen our fundamental understanding of the world, we won’t provide a basis for the next generation of innovations. I figured, therefore, that I could help the most by creating an institute where the best minds would come to do research.