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Why We’re Talking To Scientists About Toilets

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Waste Management

Why We’re Talking To Scientists About Toilets

Melinda and I spoke earlier today at the National Academy of Sciences, a non-profit group that has advised the nation on important scientific matters for 150 years. The NAS has roughly 2,200 members, all scientists at the top of their respective fields. About 200 of them have Nobel prizes.

Naturally, I took the opportunity to talk about toilets. Of course I also mentioned vaccines and other life-saving scientific advances. Melinda talked about the benefits of contraception and agriculture. But I put special emphasis on our Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, because it’s a great example of one of our biggest priorities: encouraging scientists to focus on the problems of the poor.

Scientific advances like the microprocessor and new medicines have been key in lifting millions of people around the world out of poverty. In my lifetime, extreme poverty has been cut in half. So have the number of people who don’t have safe drinking water, and the number of mothers who die during childbirth.

Bill Gates: "There are many life-saving discoveries that don't reach the developing world."

But we can do even better. There are many life-saving discoveries that don’t reach the developing world. Or they aren’t tailored to meet the needs of the poor to begin with. The toilet for example has been essentially the same technology for 200 years, and it requires infrastructure like sewage systems that are out of reach for much of the world. That leads to open defecation and other problems—and 1.5 million children who die each year from contaminated food and water. So Melinda and I made the case for finding more ways to make sure the poor are among the first, rather than the last, to benefit from scientific progress.

Why the National Academy of Sciences? Because it’s a group that represents one of the greatest resources we have in fighting poverty and disease: brainpower. Material scientists can make big advances on the next-generation toilet. Geneticists can develop new seeds that help farmers grow more nutritious food and raise their incomes. Energy researchers can create cheaper, cleaner forms of energy to meet the growing demand for it in the developing world.

Here are some specific ways we’re trying to use the power of science to benefit the poor:

Reinventing the Toilet

Many of us in the rich world take toilets for granted. But today 40 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to them. Instead they resort to open defecation, which contaminates water and food supplies, killing 1.5 million children a year. Unfortunately, today’s toilets require complex sewer infrastructure that won’t work in many of these settings. So we need to design affordable toilets that work in these communities. 

Last year eight universities participated in a Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. We held a fair to celebrate the winner, and I got to award prizes to the top three winners. It probably says something about me that I really had fun handing out prizes for toilet designs.

SCUBA Rice

In her speech, Melinda talked about the importance of providing farmers with new seeds. One example of this is the effort to develop new varieties of rice that can thrive in areas of Asia and Africa, where rice yields are historically much lower than other parts of the world because of flooding, drought and poor soils. Partners from around the world are working to create rice that can “hold its breath” underwater.

Grand Challenges

In 1900, the German mathematician David Hilbert sparked a century of innovation in mathematics by identifying the 23 problems in that field that most needed solving. That’s the model for the Grand Challenges in Global Health. A panel of scientists has identified 16 challenges that, if solved, could lead to breakthrough advances for the developing world. They include everything from making vaccines that don’t have to be refrigerated to preventing mosquitos from transmitting malaria.

Want to learn more?

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