Friday, April 15, 2011

In defense of Watson

Nobel laureate James Watson was attacked yesterday (14 April 2011) whilst giving a lecture at Patras University. Hooded youngsters invaded the lecture theatre crying "racist!". One of them  jumped on the stage yielding a stick and attacked elderly Watson. The Nobel laureate escaped unharmed thanks to students and academics who rushed to his rescue.
I condemn this fascist incident which has to do with a twisted and quite insane idea that prevails in Greek Universities with regards to "asylum"; meaning that anyone within University grounds has immunity from the law, including criminal activities such as attacking someone with intent to cause harm, or even kill.
However, and because there will be many in Greece and elsewhere who apart from condeming the attack they might also accuse Watson for racism, let me remind what has happened; and then let me explain my take on this,
Watson had told the Sunday Times a couple of years ago that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really." The world media reacted violently against those comments, the result being that Watson is being branded a racist and widely discredited. His response to the uproar has been: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
So what did Watson really mean?
An undeniable and mysterious fact has been that during the half century or so in just about every industrial society average IQs have risen dramatically. This cannot be evolutionary. It takes many generations for evolutionary effects to take place and fifty years are simply not enough. So what has gone on? Many candidates: better diet, better education, even television aka the information revolution. All in all, what the findings mean is that Europeans and Americans – let us say predominantly “white people” (although black people in western societies are also included in those measurements) – were more "stupid" fifty years ago. This ‘stupidity” had nothing to do with the color of their skin. It is related to the level of social and economic development in the west. What Watson tried to say was that the same truth applies to Africa today. Africans’  measurements of intelligence (and not intelligence as a "natural" given whatever that may mean) are low not because they are black but because they are poor and uneducated, like us white ones were fifty years ago. His point is very poignant. When smart white people at the IMF and the World Bank develop their smart white policies to cure the ills of Africa, and then expect the Africans, at their present level of socio-economic development, to implement them, they are wasting valuable resources. Measures for Africa must be customized to reflect the situation on the ground. Imagine a World Bank expert on a time machine, flying back to Washington DC at the turn of the 20th century and expecting to implement modern policies in the all-white America of 1900s. I would dare to guess that our well-meaning time traveler will not be understood – by those white “stupid” folks, who would find it impossible to heed to our time traveler’s advise.
So why Watson did got so misunderstood? Because of two things. Firstly, because of media hysteria on anything that touches upon race and gender. Secondly, because when a scientist speaks to the media must tread very carefully. I have met many scientists in my life who thought that science communication in the media simply means “talking about science”. Well it does not, folks! It means, first and foremost, understanding the difference between a newspaper and a science journal. In the latter you have time to expand, retort, debate. In the former you do not. Elementary, dear Watson...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to build a knowledge economy in Greece

An edited version of this article was published in Odyssey magazine Winter 2011 issue
There is something deeply pathetic about the current state of Greece. Perhaps it has to do with the spirit of defeatism that imbues our modern political discourse since the routing of our army in the 1920s. We pretend to be the victims of history, bemoan instead of actively claim, blame others for our mistakes, lie to ourselves and to the rest of the world. This endemic culture of intellectual hypocrisy has led to Greece becoming today little more than a negotiable holiday destination for middle-income tourists. But sun, sand and surf alone will not pay for the mounting debt, or for our pensions, or for our future if we ever hope to have one. We need to re-invent Greece and turn it to a dynamic, high tech, export-oriented economy. Anything short of wholesale economic revolution will perpetuate the looming crisis into the following decades, exclude our young from the abounding opportunities of a globalized economy, further cultivate our tendency for introversion, and render our country and our people historically irrelevant.

Much needs to change. Our state schools serve not the interests of our children but of the heavily-unionized teachers. They produce hordes of ignoramuses destined for a life of unemployment or underemployment. As a result, if you are a bright young mind from a low-income family you have very little chance of climbing up the social ladder, a right that was not refused to our fathers and grandfathers.
Our Universities are a disaster, with a few shining exceptions in various departments here and there. Our research centers struggle to pay salaries and bills. Many of their stymied young scientists have left careers abroad to come to Greece, only to discover that the cleaners get paid more than they. Our brain power is frustrated, underemployed or unemployed, watching from the sidelines. If any of them dare to venture into commercially exploiting their ideas they will come up against the hydra of Greek bureaucracy, the labyrinth of our tax system and the medusa of our labor laws. Only heroes in the mythical sense could grapple with these monsters and defeat them.
So the question is: given the current situation is there a chance in hell that Greece can ever become a high tech export country? A country that will not only learn to exploit its knowledge capital, but will compete for markets with players such as the Americans, the northern Europeans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Koreans, the Chinese and a host of others who shape the future of our world?
I believe there is. The first step will be to raise the importance of the issue in government. We need a minister for science, technology and innovation to carry out the reforms. He (or she) must have a clear and sustained mandate from the Prime Minister. S/he will have the responsibility of drafting legislation that will cover all the other four areas to be discussed. The current ministry of education will have to be absorbed in the new ministry, and focus on executing the reforms in schools and universities. The general-secretariat for research and technology will have to be integrated also in the new ministry and focus on linking research to industry.
School reform will be one of the four areas that the new ministry should lead. State schools need to be redesigned and teachers made to teach. Parents should be given the right to choose the school for their children, based on school evaluation by an independent agency. Schools should have independent governance and the freedom to become competitive by selecting personnel, expand their curriculum, etc. Their state income will be tagged to their evaluation reports, but they may also attract additional income from charities, local government or industry. Science and technology should be given prominence in the curriculum. Teachers should work with students around science projects and not only courseware. They should go out of the classroom more often and observe nature. Connect science and engineering to reality, to real problems, and enthuse young minds with the exhilaration that comes from discovery. The best performing students must be given a chance for quicker progress. Special schools of excellence for the brightest kids should return to existence. These kids should be taken through a more rigorous curriculum that would satisfy their curiosity and abilities. Gifted kids from the countryside should be helped to study in these schools, their boarding paid by special grants.
Secondly, we must devise a new framework to exploit our knowledge capital, starting from the universities. I’m afraid that the decadence and corruption that prevails in Greek Universities are too deeply ingrained to simply go away with half measures. Universities must be evaluated and some of them must close or change ownership (privitaized or taken over by local governments). One should identify centers of excellence in research, save those only, fund them generously, and build  state universities anew, with new rules of governance. Central government cannot afford to fund too many universities of high quality, so I suggest that state universities are kept in five main cities only; Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, Ioannina and Herakleion. If the various towns and smaller cities want to keep theirs they should find the money to finance them. It may take a generation to get to the level of really having good state universities again, but it’s the only way to go. Have private universities immediately, in order to absorb the unemployed professors, but also to create a competitive environment for higher education.
Education can be both a citizen right and a market commodity; and we can have the best of both worlds. Students who pass university exams should be given a state grant for four years depending on their family’s income – and the right to spend it to the university of their choice, private or public. Rich kids will get no grant, but will be able to get a student loan.  Private and State Universities of high quality will attract students and their grants or loans, and thus survive and flourish. The rest can happily perish. Evaluation of Universities, state and private, will be carried out by an independent agency in order to inform students and their families.
But University reform, however radical and revolutionary, will not deliver any substantial results if not linked to the real economy. There are many who think that there is no real industry in Greece. This is not true. There is and our efforts should focus on what we have, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials and software. For the next ten years research centers in our Universities and in our research institutions should act solely as R&D departments for our core industries. Researchers will be paid by the government but work in their labs to increase the international competitiveness of the private enterprises. Contracts will guarantee that profits from patents developed in the labs will be shared with the researchers. If the government, or private entrepreneurs, can bring in investment from abroad in other industries, then surely this framework will prove to be a major incentive for foreign investors. Greece cannot fund every research area there is, so we must focus on supporting our industries and create new jobs. Blue-sky research and basic research should be funded by European grants or by exploiting Greece’s membership to international scientific organizations such as ESA, CERN and EMBL.
Thirdly, a legal and administrative system must be designed and applied in order to finance new high tech industries. This system should give incentives to banks, corporations and angel investors, to invest on high-risk ideas. Labor and tax laws must be simplified. High tech start ups must be given tax breaks for the first three years of their operation, and be able to tap in the R&D resources available at the research centers and the Universities. An important catalyst for technological innovation is defence procurment budgets. Greece spends a considerable precentage of it GDP in defence. A part of this could be allocated to innovative research which could find its way, after a few years, into civil application. This is a common practice for many countries and although Greece tried to do likewise in the 80s and 90s, it failed. It is time to assess the reasons for failure and reestablish a strong link between research and national defence.
Fourthly, there must be support for the high tech industries. The government must build partnerships with our industries which will actively promote our products and services abroad, attract investment and scientific talent, and reinforce our presence to strategic markets. Greece must be rebranded. We must reintroduce ourselves to the world as a reinvented country where bright minds and novel ideas are valued and supported.
Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult task of all, we must foster a new scientific culture in our country. Promote scientists and engineers, and encourage kids to choose science, engineering and maths as their favorite subjects. Professional organizations in science and technology must come out of the shells and reach out to society. The outreach program of the Hellenic Society of Physicists is an example which has to emulated and advanced by chemists, mathematicians and engineers. Big Society must support the work of a truly reformist government, and that includes the major charity foundations of Greece which in the past decades seem to be obsessed with funding opera houses, art museums and music halls that appeal to the few and the mostly old. It is of course fantastic to have these buildings but what we need most urgently now is to catch up with the rest of the world and not left behind. We need to invest in new ideas, in people, in innovative start-ups, in high technology.
Will any of this ever happen? My ruminations are based on a fundamental - or fatal, depending on your view - assumption: that the political leadership of Greece will adopt the vision of reinvention and execute it. Let me hope for a moment, against all odds, that they will.