WEEKEND LIGHTER: Science is a Great Giver

WEEKEND LIGHTER: Science is a Great Giver
(October 29/30, 2016, No.45/2016)
Weekend Lighter is posted every Saturday @mgwarrier.blogspot.in
Feel free to mail your views on this edition of WL to mgwarrier@gmail.com
Opening Remarks
Coping with the technology outburst**

Media reports say that 32 lakh debit cards issued by several banks including State Bank of India, ICICI Bank, YES Bank, HDFC Bank and PNB are being replaced  by new cards with more security features. The National Payments Corporation of India has come out with a statement quantifying the damage: “The complaints of fraudulent withdrawal is limited to cards of 19 banks and 641 customers. The total amount involved is Rs1.3crore as reported by various affected banks to NPCI.”
It is comforting to see that quick corrective action is being initiated by authorities as and when malpractices are noticed. The credibility of the system can be salvaged by immediately compensating the losses suffered by the clientele. The wider issue is the fast forward mode technology is accepting to compete in a market which is not much worried about ethics and morals. The forced withdrawals of products from the market by car manufacturers, food product giants and smart phone producers incurring heavy losses are fresh in our memory. Something is wrong, somewhere and earlier we fix it, the better for humanity. One also gets disturbed about the safety systems in places where explosives from crackers to nuclear devices are manufactured and stored. Yesterday (October 20, 2016) a fire in a cracker shop in Sivakasi resulted in the death of 8 persons by suffocation.
In 1964, when I wrote a recruitment test for selection of auditors in the Thiruvananthapuram Accountant General’s Office, the subject given for an essay was “Modern science has stifled human values”. In the interview, the then Accountant General, T N Kuriakos made it a point to ask candidates who had got better marks for the essay the meaning of the word ‘stifle’. Being a Malayalam medium student up to SSLC, I had to explain the meaning in several words. He was impressed, but. I got selected. 52 years down the line, I am still struggling to convince others that “Modern technology is stifling humanity”.
Allow me to narrate three technology-related personal experiences in the recent past. I will try to be factual in narration and leave it to the reader to come to conclusions.
Mobile phone
In June this year, when I landed in Mumbai airport, I switched on my mobile phone. It was not working. I was using a Thiruvananthapuram-based connection with roaming facility. Later the service provider told me that they had switched over to 4G and earlier connections need to be ‘upgraded’ to become functional. I approached their franchisee in Bhandup for help, who guided me to approach someone in Kerala as the original connection was from Thiruvananthapuram. The service provider’s Kerala representatives expressed helplessness as their shift to 4G will take time. I got my connection disabled and had to go to another service provider for a new mobile number.
Bank account
During the initial days of ATM frauds (about a month back), I received a call from a bank where I have an account and a debit card. The sweet voice at the other end confirms my name and tells me that the bank is providing ‘insurance’ for ATM Cards under a new scheme called “Card Protect”. Quickly I ask whether the service is “fee based”. She answers in the affirmative and goes on explaining that the umbrella insurance which comes for just Rs 1,700 per annum will cover losses suffered by using ‘Other Bank ATM Cards’ also. I plead, I can’t decide over the phone, but would like to get an email with details. No email came. I still do not know about the genuineness of the scheme. This is the result of outsourced call centres being used for selling products and services. Nothing gets recorded, unless you are a tech-wizard.
Portability of mobile connection
My mobile connection is just two month old. I get a call from an unknown number. This time, a strong male voice at the other end confirms that mine was a new connection. Then asks me what was the bill amount I paid last month. I give a round figure, assuming that the call is from my own service provider. He asks me to change the plan so that I will have to pay just the half of what I was paying every month. I ask what I should do for that. He asks me to keep identity and address proof ready and give my address, so that he can come and meet me. I said I have given these documents for getting the connection and why they are required again. Then he reveals, he represents another service provider and he can arrange shifting of connection to his agency without change in number. When I tell him I was not interested, he expressed his disappointment for having ‘wasted’ his time. This is aggressive marketing.
Your options include:
(a)  Brush aside the above as laments of a septuagenarian who is not tech-savvy.
(b) Talk about this in your circles and improve your preparedness to meet the side-effects of the current Technology burst.
Make your choice judiciously and avoid future regrets!
**Submitted version of my article published in Open Page,The Hindu, October 25, 2016

Recent responses
October 26, 2016
Underestimating Tatas legacy
This refers to Shreekant Sambani’s piece “Revenge of the angry, old men” (Business Standard, October 26). To say it politely, it was injustice by the writer to have mixed up Tatas story with the Yadav family spars. The impression given by the writer that he is privy to the goings on in Tatas Group from time unknown leaves one with a doubt that the writer’s discomfort with the Tatas has pre-Mistry origin.
Tatas  have  a 150 year history behind and perhaps stands alone as the single private sector group which  strived to protect public interest and participated in India’s economic growth through thick and thin, working on trust principles. The opening paragraph of the Group’s profile on the website explains the Tata approach to business. It inter alia says: 'To improve the quality of life of the communities we serve globally, through long-term stakeholder value creation based on Leadership with Trust'.
If there is one real reason for the unceremonious exit of Cyrus Mistry on October 24, 2016, it is unlikely that anyone outside Tatas may come to know of it. Probably, it may be the culmination of several events during the last few years affecting the fortunes of Tata Group, for which Mistry might not be the only person responsible. But, those outside need to concede to Ratan Tata, the right to  correct, through legally acceptable means,  if a succession plan he implemented after considerable contemplation has gone wrong, in his own assessment.
People who thought Tatas can be broken into manageable pieces by using methods like leaving the institutions topless or with weak CEOs (similar to those successfully tried in PSUs like UTI and HMT), will, hopefully, be proved wrong here.
M G Warrier, Mumbai
October 24, 2016
Let MPC evolve
Is refers to the story “Rate cut: Economic panacea for all ills?” (The Hindu, October 24). It is not clear whether the authors did access the minutes of the maiden two day(October 3/4) meeting of the newly constituted Monetary Policy Committee, which, inter alia said: “MPC reviewed the surveys conducted by the Reserve Bank to gauge  consumer confidence, households’ inflation expectations, corporate sector  performance, credit conditions, the outlook for the industrial, services and  infrastructure sectors, feedback from industry associations and the projections of professional forecasters. The Committee reviewed in detail staff’s macroeconomic  projections, alternative scenarios around various risks to the outlook and staff’s quarterly projection model.” Drawing on these and after extensive discussions on  the stance of monetary policy, the MPC adopted the resolution which set out the policy rates, including the policy repo rate which now stands lower by 25 basis points at 6.25 per cent. The minutes also carry the individual views of each of the MPC members.
The observations like, “…wonders if the MPC felt a need to distance itself from the legacy of Dr Rajan.” and alleging immaturity in MPC’s approach puts the writers in bad light and if someone looks for motives, like the subject having been used to say something they wanted to say about management of NPAs, defending will be difficult.
Monetary Policy Committee was conceived by Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission(FSLRC) as one of the many reforms that would finally help Finance Ministry make RBI amenable. Though its brief was to recommend on financial sector legislative reforms, FSLRC concentrated on truncating and weakening Reserve Bank of India. It invented reasons even to change the designation of the head of RBI. But, RBI is a lucky institution. Many things changed by the time the recommendations of FSLRC were being taken up for implementation. They just became reference points for further action on subjects covered in the report. The two events, the presence of Dr Raghuram Rajan at Mint Road from 2013 to 2016 and the change of guard in New Delhi worked in RBI’s favour.
Thus the Monetary Policy Committee got a makeover as an expert body unburdening the RBI Governor from the individual responsibility to explain every policy decision. Since the time the constitution of MPC was announced, a section of analysts has been apprehensive of MPC dividing itself into Team A(RBI) and Team B (GOI) and voting for constituency interests, making casting vote by Governor essential to take decisions. The professional way in which MPC has conducted itself in its debut meeting as evidenced by the views of  each member on the policy stance, now in public domain, has proved these doomsayers wrong. As it gains more experience and a feel of RBI’s role, MPC will graduate into another strong pillar supporting the central bank.
M G Warrier, Mumbai
October 24, 2016
Nobel idea
“Proximate bottoms of shallow barrels” by TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan (Business Standard, Line and Length, October 24), gives deep insight into the legacy and relevance of Nobel prize as an instrument to promote academic work to excel for the benefit of humanity. Let Nobel Committee consider the suggestions for making the prize more efficient and relevant.
That the writer missed the work of a Nobel prize awardee and was caught unawares when asked to write about him cannot be a reason to make the economics Nobel award a quinquennial affair. It is another matter, if Nobel Committee decides not to award Nobel for economics or any other stream in a particular year for want of qualifying nominations. We have been watching sharing of the prize by equally talented scholars in some cases.
 Back home, let us consider what can be done in India to recognize talent and research in various fields. While public funds out of budgetary provisions in India flow to higher education, incentives and encouragement for extraordinary work in academia or contribution to research and economic development are few and inadequate.
Some organizations in public sector and large corporates do support institutions like IITs and IIMs by funding or instituting chairs. But in many cases they do not go beyond an ‘on-the-job vacation’ for incumbents. If some system is put in place to evaluate and reward talents in different research streams, it will motivate scholars to excel in their fields.
Even TV Channels give away huge prizes to talented artists every year. Research is seen as a qualification for a job or taking up teaching as a profession and therefore the incentive to do better is lacking.
M G Warrier, Mumbai

Science is the Great Giver*
October 24, 2016
I’m traveling to the United Kingdom and France this week to talk about how political leadership can accelerate innovation. 
The first promise of any good politician is to make people’s lives better, and scientific research leading to innovation is one of the best ways to honor that promise. Until about 1700, there was basically no development. Almost everybody was poor, many were sick. One of every four children died. Average life expectancy was about 40 years, and 99 percent of people were illiterate. But then science came along and we started inventing—electricity, the steam engine, antibiotics, sanitation, vaccines, microprocessors, genetic medicine. 
Science is the great giver—and we’re just at the beginning of what it can give.
The UK and France are natural homes for this message. The world owes an ongoing debt to the discoveries from both countries, including Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in Britain, and Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurization and Rene Laennec’s invention of the stethoscope in France.
The discoveries of these scientists weren’t just breathtaking insights into the nature of the universe; they became fuel for human progress. Progress is not a law of nature, like gravity. It takes work. Progress comes from innovation, which comes from research, which comes from investment, which comes in great part from government funding. 
A powerful example is the story of penicillin. In 1928, when Alexander Fleming was doing research on antibacterial substances at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, he saw that mold that had developed by accident on a staphylococcus culture plate had created a bacteria-free circle around itself.
It was a historic discovery, but more work had to be done to determine the cause, isolate the active substance, and see if it could kill germs in a human being without also killing the human being. Dr. Howard Florey, Dr. Ernst Chain and other colleagues at Oxford were eager to pursue the work and wrote to the Medical Research Council (the UK government funding agency) requesting a research grant. They received £25, with the possibility of more later. 
With the additional help of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the team was able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the drug, which gained them the government support they needed to move to large-scale production in partnership with the United States. These efforts saved thousands of soldiers’ lives during World War II, where the number of deaths from battlefield infections plunged with the use of penicillin. 
This same pattern of government support for medical research is underway in Britain today in many areas, including in malaria research. Malaria takes more than 700,000 lives each year—mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia. Its heaviest toll is on children. In 2003, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and other European funders came together to fund a partnership between the Medicines for Malaria Venture and Novartis to develop a medicine tailored especially for children. This new drug, Coartem Dispersible, tastes sweet, is easy to take, is now available in 50 countries, and is estimated to have cured over 68 million cases of malaria. An analysis of the UK government research costs estimates that it has cost British taxpayers £1.10—1.40 per life saved. That is an amazing return on investment.
This is just one aspect of the UK’s work on malaria. DfID has also pledged an additional 25 million pounds to help develop a one-dose cure for malaria that could be available in the next three years. And GlaxoSmithKline is working with the Malaria Vaccine Initiative to develop the most promising vaccine candidate in history, which will enter final demonstration trials next year. 
In another UK research initiative of historic consequence, the UK Medical Research Council, with funding from the DfID, launched a partnership to develop vaginal microbicides to protect women from HIV. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death globally in women age 15-44—in part because it is very difficult for a young woman to negotiate condom use with her partner. A vaginal microbicide puts protection directly in the hands of a woman, giving her an intervention she can use without her partner’s knowledge or consent. Two clinical trials have showed that the monthly dapivirine ring helped reduce new infections in women, with infection rates falling as much as 75 percent with near perfect use. This could avert millions of new infections and leave the world again indebted to British research.
The UK has also led in the search for an Ebola vaccine. The 2014 Ebola outbreak killed more than 11,000 people with an average fatality rate of 50 percent. One of the most important steps in containing an epidemic is to vaccinate around the outbreak, but in 2014, there was no Ebola vaccine and vaccine candidates sat on the shelves because there were no buyers. In 2015, late-stage studies conducted with funding by the UK’s Department for International Development, the Wellcome Trust, the Jenner Institute, and the Canadian government showed a vaccine candidate from Merck to be highly effective against Ebola. The UK is also supporting promising vaccine candidates from GSK and Johnson & Johnson. As a result, if there is a new Ebola outbreak, the response is likely to be far more swift and effective. 
Every country on earth will benefit when we have an Ebola vaccine, when microbicides are perfected, when malaria is eradicated—but there is a special gain to the countries doing the research. First of all, when a country funds innovations that make life better for people around the world, it defines itself as a global leader. Second, research and development brings a huge benefit to the countries doing the research because it creates high-paying jobs, encourages the growth of talent, and builds up the scientific capacity of the country that pays for it. 
When a country builds its own scientific capacity, the benefits it gets are far beyond what it can imagine. That’s because some of the greatest discoveries of science are insights that came when looking for something else. Scientists begin searching for the answer to one problem and discover the answer to many others. And once a country builds scientific talent, it can deploy it quickly to urgent areas. 
In the midst of a pandemic, for example, a country with great scientific resources can far more quickly track a disease, invent diagnostic tests and develop treatments and vaccines. You can’t mobilize your talent if you haven’t already built it. 
The importance of scientific research also stretches far beyond global health. Supplies of energy, water, food—which are central to the fight against poverty and crucial for easing the scarcity that is a cause of instability—are all problems that must be solved by science. And research into information technology can improve productivity in ways that lead to new jobs, economic growth and educational gains as well.
Whether the research is in global health or agriculture or information technology or energy, the dynamic is the same. Innovation comes from government spending on R&D plus the creative genius of the private sector which takes the findings from lab to market. 
Here too, Europe is helping to lead the way. In the search for new energy sources, some of the most forward thinking companies are in France. Total, an oil company, and Engie, an electricity provider, have seen the need to transition from fossil fuels to clean-energy solutions. They are thinking about how to take biofuels, solar energy and other new energy innovations, many developed through government-sponsored R&D, and scale them to meet the demands of their global customers. This formula has led to the spread of so many great health interventions around the world. It has also led to the success of Microsoft, Apple, Google and other tech companies whose innovations built on the insights gained in government-funded research.  
That’s the message that I’m bringing with me to Europe. I want to urge leaders here to take on our biggest problems through dramatic increases in scientific research—because we know that government-funded research can create jobs now, meet public needs soon, and lead to economic growth far into the future.  
At the start of this post, I cited the work of Charles Darwin. It’s clear enough by now that the key adaptive trait in human beings is our ability to discover and share new knowledge—to innovate. That’s why we’re here and Neanderthals aren’t. Innovation is what helps us flourish. To slow down on innovation now by missing the chance to boost research is to turn our back on our greatest strength. It’s replacing thinking with hoping. That’s not worthy of people who have big dreams for their children. We need to invest in research as if billions of lives depended on it—because they do.
*This was originally published at gatenotes.com


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