Science both sets and reflects the agenda for American science. In the United States, cancer is the second biggest killer; malaria caused only four deaths in the most recent annual count, all from infections occurring abroad. Although coverage of cancer in Science still overwhelms that of malaria, in 2000 the count of cancer mentions in Science turned down for the first time in the history of the publication. At the same time, malaria coverage tilted up, reflecting a shift from developed to developing world health concerns. (As if in emphasis, last week Nature also ran a malaria cover story.)
Symbolic New Year’s Day 2000 saw the establishment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates said then of his foundation’s mission: “I think that we could have the goal that every person in the world would have the same type of healthy life that people in the United States have.” His words now seem to have instantly reshaped the trajectory of science.
2000 marked an inflection point for NASA—and a turn in Science toward the terrestrial. Previously, the magazine's affections for space exploration had grown and grown even as the golden age of the 1960s receded. Ironically, coverage reached an apogee at the dawn of the 21st century and began falling back to earth in 2000. President Obama's subsequent cancellation of the Ares program earlier this year scaled back human space exploration to the vanishing point.
Neither are we on a trajectory to create a new, post-human species. In 2001, mentions of malaria in Science exceeded those of genetic engineering for the first time, a predominance that continues.
Can these shifts really be traced to the influence of Gates Foundation? Concerning the new emphasis on malaria, Gates is indisputably causal. The disease began gaining column inches in Science before Gates, from 1980 forward. However, the last decade’s spike to all-time highs not only coincides with Gates’ rhetoric but an enormous funding surge largely orchestrated by the Gates Foundation.
Research agendas are a zero-sum game. Consequently, the rise of malaria and global health automatically de-emphasizes all else. But difficulties specific to cancer, space, and genetic engineering also contributed to their demotion. The war on cancer and the space age are each roughly half a century old and not much nearer to victory or realization. By contrast, exponential advances in DNA sequencing technology seemed to be leading inexorably to a post-human species. However, genetic explanations of both complex diseases and complex traits have been—and might remain—elusive. As the number of genes involved in the relatively straightforward trait of height has grown, the prospects for and coverage of genetic engineering have dropped.
Gates still could have jumped on the spacewagon with fellow software billionaires Paul Allen, a major funder of SETI, or Jeff Bezos (with Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX) who continue undeterred towards the spacefaring vision. Even software millionaires like John Carmack (Armadillo Aerospace) can’t help themselves. But Gates isn’t susceptible. In 1997, he praised the (unmanned) Mars Pathfinder mission as “a fine example of small science ... undertaken on a strict budget [with] limited, achievable goals.” He believed space would not be transformative: “Though humanity will do some great things in space in the next 100 years, and there will be enormous benefits, I don't think what goes on in space will fundamentally change the way we live.”
Concerning genetic engineering, Gates contended “It’s all a question of how, not if,” in 1995. He may still believe that, but his energies are going into saving rather than surpassing humans.
The opportunities (and imperatives) presented by global health might be greater than for any alternative research program. But nature yields to science only grudgingly no matter the frontier. Gates’ goal to eradicate malaria will be a multi-decade grind offering frequent parallels with the bogged down, four-decade war on cancer. Already polio eradication is a decade overdue.
It’s a volitional, pivotal moment. Gates, his full weight on Archimedes’ lever, is moving the world in a new direction altogether different from 20th century imagination and expectation.