It’s hard to plead poverty with friends like Bill Gates

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The other David Hewson with a man who’s given Imperial loads over the years.
I do wish he’d stop stealing my autograph opportunities (the singing one that is)

There’s a refrain that runs round Imperial College’s Wye Park propaganda so constantly it’s tempting to take it for granted. But that’s what propaganda is for: repeat a dubious proposition often enough, and sooner or later people will think it’s fact.

The idea is this: Imperial is a world class academic institution (true) looking to become engaged in worthwhile research that may one day help save the planet (possibly). But this takes money. And in order to get that, Imperial needs to raise it. The only way? Flogging off protected countryside for houses, which puts £300 to £400 million into the college’s coffers, and something like 340 acres of Wye’s green land to the bulldozer.

But here’s the truth. Imperial is in a rotten position to start pleading poverty. Just ask Bill Gates. Can you begin to guess how much of his money Professor Richard Sykes et al have pocketed over the past couple of years?

Whatever you think of Microsoft’s software (declaration of interest: by and large I hate it) you cannot fault Bill Gates’ generosity towards genuine causes. I would never have guessed this of the shy, surly chap I used to get to interview years ago, back when he spoke to the press, but Bill has turned out to be one of the world’s great givers. In fact the only argument I can think of to support the overwhelming Microsoft monopoly on our computers is that this acts, ultimately, as a tax on the developed nations to pay something back to the third world.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org) has handed out more than $10 billion in grants since its inception six years ago. As part of its brief ‘to reduce inequities and improve lives around the world’ it has doled out vast sums of money to improve public libraries, reduce extreme poverty, and fund advanced research with a particular emphasis on the poorer parts of the planet.

Hold your breath for the big surprise: a whopping amount of that has gone the way of Imperial College. To be precise…

  • Nov 2005. $8.6 million to develop a simple, affordable and rapid test to measure the health of the immune system in HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries.
  • July 2005 $10,178,839 over 5 years to address Grand Challenge #11 by using cutting edge technology to identify the molecular signatures of latent TB in human tissues, and to target those signatures with novel drugs to treat latent TB
  • March 2006 $31,928,231 to support the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) in Africa.

This is, let’s say it out loud, extremely good news, for Imperial, for the scientists whose work is enabled by these grants, and, one day, for those in the third world who will ultimately reap the benefits. What’s it got to do with Wye? It’s proof that funding for worthwhile research aimed at tackling important global problems exists, and that Imperial knows full well how to milk these sources when the opportunities arise.

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I don’t care if your computer has just crashed… it’s still the wrong Bill she’s hunting

So would Bill Gates stump up some small change to cover at least a chunk of the £300 to £400 million Imperial say they need to kick start the research side of Wye Park? I’ve no idea. Looking at the terms of reference of his foundation, it might be pushing it, but we are talking planet-saving stuff so it would surely be worth a punt. Though one must point out that old Bill is a very canny businessman, not known for being generous without good reason. He used to fly economy while still a billionaire for a while (no, I know you’re not surprised). He has a staff of 241 very hard-headed people running his foundation, people who will ask very hard questions of anyone coming with the begging bowl, unlike the goggle-eyed innocents of Ashford Borough Council and KCC.

Such as: where on earth is this £300 to £400 million going to go? What will it be spent on and why? As with everything else to do with Wye Park, these remain great mysteries, and you rather get the impression Imperial think it’s a bit of a cheek if mere mortals happen to ask.

But here’s one other biggie Mr Gates would definitely ask — and, as he loves to say when someone wheels out a toughie, ‘That’s a great question!’ (cue nervous grin, much blinking and a rabbit-in-the-headlights look that says ‘Crap, I never expected that one’.) Unlike the Gates Foundation, Imperial is planning a venture that is supposed to be commercial through and through. It is designed to have huge international partners — drug firms, energy companies, global institutions — on board. They will expect to turn a profit out of everything one day (and quite rightly, since without profits there’ll be no more money to save the planet for the next man-made crisis).

In the great swing of things, £300 to £400m is not a lot of capital to raise to help save the planet for the human race. So why does it require Imperial to flog off protected land, like some cash-strapped householder looking to get his hands on some ready dosh, in order to take part? How about some plain old investment? What alternative forms of funding for the venture have been explored? Any at all? Or is Imperial just blinded by greed because David Brooks Wilson, having developed land just a few miles down the road (much of it still unoccupied), fancies bringing out the bulldozers once more because that’s just so easy and obvious?

If the research that Imperial says it will bring to Wye is of such global importance, there are surely backers who will come up with the readies — in industry, government and multinational institutions. To say this whole supposedly wonderful venture depends entirely on building housing estates on protected countryside surely demeans the very idea in the first place — as do Imperial’s often repeated low threats to take it elsewhere if it doesn’t get to play property developer as it wishes.

We already know from the revelations this site has made of late that Imperial has no case to argue when it comes to a shortage of available land. That’s there already, as David Brooks Wilson surely knows, since he created a lot of it.

So perhaps it all comes down to the money. And there the question is very simple: if this is the wonderful opportunity its backers claim, why won’t all these gigantic international players put their money where their mouths are and pay for it, up front, and on existing sites that are crying out for their trade?

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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