If you ask one of the world's wealthiest and most philanthropic people if he's concerned that the United States may be losing its foothold as the world leader in biomedical research, the answer might surprise you.
Following a keynote presentation on the opening day of the 36th annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, Bill Gates was joined on stage for an interview with CNN's Sanjay Gupta, MD, who picked the multi-billionaire's brain about public funding trends for global health initiatives.
Gupta, CNN's medical correspondent and the associate chief of neurosurgery at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, noted that over the past 10 years the United States' funding of biomedical research has been relatively flat, while China has increased its funding by about 33%. At that rate, Gupta said, China is expected to surpass the United States in terms of public funding for the sector by 2022.
"That's kind of a goofy way of doing the measurement," Gates said.
For one thing, Gates explained, in China the difference between funding basic research and helping to fund companies is not partitioned. So if one were to look just at the basic research funding it would be at least another decade before we see anything close to a crossover.
"But that's fine, you know, the red scare," Gates joked. "If it causes us to raise our NIH budget, that's all a good reason."
But kidding aside, Gupta said to Gates, "whether it's a decade or whatever the case may be, we consider ourselves the world leaders in biomedical research ... is that standing, in your mind, threatened?"
"Well, I'm glad people think of it like football, where one person wins and one person loses," Gates said.
But in reality, it's not like that, he added.
"If I have cancer and there’s a pill that comes from China, I’m very happy," Gates said.
On the other hand, competition does drive innovation, he admitted.
"I guess it’s great that we think we need to compete," Gates said. "We should tune up our game in terms of bringing in young scientists and how we back new ideas and the way [publicly-funded] institutes are structured … we should always feel like'gosh, we’re about to be challenged'."
As the co-founder of Microsoft, Gates remembers all too well what that kind of competitive environment feels like. He compared it to the 1980s when Japan was making great advancements in computer science and the U.S. technology industry felt threatened.
"It was good that we were scared," Gates said. "It was a complete mirage, we had nothing to be afraid of, but it did get us to think ... and it led to an incredible period where the U.S. [tech industry] is stronger than ever."
Biomedical research is different though.
"In biology, it’s a game where you want more people to play," Gates said.