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Thursday, February 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gates' big plan for UW: creating an ambitious public-health institute

Seattle Times staff reporter

Harvard University was humiliated last year when software mogul Larry Ellison reneged on his promise to give the college its biggest-ever gift: $115 million to build an ambitious public-health institute.

Ellison, the founder of Oracle, walked away, but now his archrival, Bill Gates, appears poised to step in: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to resurrect the institute at the University of Washington — and poach some top Harvard talent to boot.

UW President Mark Emmert said that should a deal go through, it would likely be worth $100 million or more. That could eclipse the single biggest UW gift — also given by Gates — of $64 million for the William H. Foege Building in 2003.

UW documents indicate the Gates Foundation is about to review a final funding proposal. While some state money would be sought — the documents don't specify how much — the foundation would pay the bulk of the costs. UW regents today will discuss draft plans for the institute, which include appointing an international advisory board.

Top public-health officials say the move could catapult Seattle to the forefront of global-health research.

What was to have been the "Ellison Institute for World Health at Harvard University" would become the more modestly named "Health Metrics Institute at the University of Washington."

Pat Wahl, dean of the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said a senior foundation official first approached Emmert last fall about transplanting the institute.

The UW documents say the institute would be led by Harvard University professor Christopher Murray, a former top official at the World Health Organization, and likely employ more than 130 people. It would specialize in measuring and evaluating the health of people in the world's poorest countries.

The proposal comes just five months after the UW launched its Department of Global Health, also primarily funded by the Gates Foundation. While the new institute would likely find overlap with the department, it would remain an independent venture.

The institute would be unique at the UW. It would have its own board of directors, and rather than report to an academic school or college, it would report directly to the president and regents.

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Consider it a kind of research think tank: Students wouldn't earn degrees through the institute but would likely help out on research projects. "In a sense, it would be a public-private partnership," Wahl said. "It would be funded by the Gates Foundation. But faculty would be hired and have faculty appointments in the global-health department."

Contacted by e-mail, Murray, who is traveling in Europe, would say little: "Discussions are under way with the University of Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about this possibility," he wrote. "At this point, it would be premature to make any further remarks." The foundation this week also declined further comment.

Should Gates proceed with the plans, it would add an odd footnote to a longstanding rivalry between two billionaires. In the late 1990s, Ellison rose to become the world's second-richest man behind Gates and appeared determined to overtake Gates both in software sales and personal wealth, according to news reports at the time.

Although Ellison's star faded somewhat after the dot-com bust, he remains a big player in Silicon Valley, and the rivalry has continued.

When Ellison pulled the plug on Harvard last summer, he said he had lost confidence after President Lawrence Summers announced his resignation earlier in the year. But The Harvard Crimson newspaper reported that Ellison's interest in the gift had been waning long before Summers' announcement.

Jim Yong Kim, a Harvard professor of health and human rights and a longtime colleague of Murray's, said the news last summer caused considerable anxiety.

Kim said that losing a venture with such promise and seeing key faculty head to Washington represents a setback to Harvard's ambitions to remain at the top of public-health research.

"This is huge for the UW, it's really huge," he said. "Chris is one of the top handful of people in the world [in his field]. ... It's a big deal that he would leave here."

A 27-page résumé of Murray published by the UW indicates the professor was a Rhodes scholar, earned a doctorate from the University of Oxford in England and later graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a medical degree. He is currently a co-editor in chief of the online scientific journal Population Health Metrics.

The curriculum vitae indicates Murray already receives funding from the Gates Foundation for a project that aims "to create global health solutions in the developing world, emphasizing new survey instruments, modeling and biomarker strategies."

Kim said Murray excels in finding health patterns from the incomplete data he is given. "He's extraordinarily productive. When other people think that data is too messy or the task too big, he jumps in," Kim said. "He's one of the hardest workers I've ever known."

Wahl said that if plans proceed, the UW institute will seek creative ways to measure health, longevity and quality of life in poorer countries where data are not always available or reliable. Accurate measurements of health are vital in figuring out where intervention is needed most and how well it's working, she added.

"This would be good for the state and the region," Wahl said. "We've been involved in global health and one of the things that is so critical is to do research and innovate."

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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