Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Going after Gates

When I worked at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle I was struck by the chemicals researchers routinely tossed away—often down the drain. It seemed paradoxical that the attempt to understand cancer involved the manufacture of some nasty carcinogens.

Of course, in the big scheme of things the amount of chemicals used in cancer research is small. And almost any positive endeavor has its shades of grey.

Take the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its role in public health has been extraordinary—but as a report in the Los Angeles Times reveals, the financial arm of the foundation invests in companies that spew some pretty toxic stuff, and may otherwise undermine the mission of the foundation.

These investments include oil companies that pollute regions of Africa where the foundation operates and a health care company embroiled in lawsuits for allegedly unnecessary surgeries. The Times claims that at least 41% of the foundation’s assets, or $8.7 billion, are in companies that “countered the foundation’s charitable goals or socially concerned philosophy.

Unlike some other philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation has apparently set up a firewall between its investment and granting arms—to try to keep the fund as flush as possible.

It may be easy to quibble with some of the standards used by the LA Times to criticize the Gates Foundation. Nonetheless, with an endowment boosted by Warren Buffett to more than $60 billion, it seems that the foundation could wield its substantial investment power in ways more in keeping with its public health mission.