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Microsoft Founder and philanthropist Bill Gates speaking at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Global Burden of Disease study in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

As federal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to propose a slate of tax and spending cuts Wednesday, hundreds of experts gathered in Seattle for a very different reason: Shaping the future of global health work.

Speaking at the event, Microsoft Founder and global health philanthropist Bill Gates put the spotlight on how better data has saved millions of lives in the past two decades and also called for international cooperation and foreign aid to continue that lifesaving work, despite the rise of isolationism and a skepticism of science in the U.S.

The event celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, an ongoing project that has completely reshaped global health by gathering detailed data across the globe. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported the study since very early on, and Gates took pains to outline how important the study has been.

“My early experience with the GDB work was really what drove Melinda and I to work in global health,” he said. 

Since Gates first saw the study, it has balooned in scope and detail. Data from the study has helped drive down the childhood mortality rate from 85 deaths per 1,000 births to just 39 deaths. But, he said, we still have much more to do.

Gates said getting more granular data will be a huge element of fighting disease — not just data on disease rates on the country level, but on the level of cities, towns and neighborhoods. And to make that happen, global health workers will need the support of countries and institutions around the world.

“Today, this is particularly important as countries are considering turning inward. All of these aid budgets are at risk, the U.S. is the most prominent,” Gates said.

He pointed to the U.K.’s budget re-write under Prime Minister David Cameron, when foreign aid funding was maintained in large part because data from the GDB showed the direct impact that funding had on saving lives around the world.

Gates also commented on the irony of the recent rise of skepticism about science in the U.S.

“The irony is that at the time when science is really helping us uncovering disease … that it’s a time in the public dialogue, the acceptance of facts is weaker or confused. I think there will be a backlash to that,” he said, as the benefits of scientific work continue to have a positive impact on the world.

He pointed to the opioid epidemic in the United States as a good example of how science and data about health have a huge impact in the lives of everyone, even citizens in developed countries.

“Science is about to enter its most exciting era ever,” he said.

Watch a full live stream of the event below:

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