Nations are like individuals. Success and failures carry them like roller coaster rides do. Some of it results from statistical events while some of it results from one’s own making. No one can always be successful, nor can be immune from the downswings of life. Three science and technology examples from recent times have caught my attention and made me compare how different nations are coping.
The Covid 19 pandemic has devastated the countries across the world. Severely restricting human mobility, taking human lives and tanking the economies. Some countries coped with it better than others. Either due to good strategies or just mother nature smiling on them. While the ones that did not do well could have done a lot better. For example, US had the most cases and deaths in the world. It was a leadership failure in an electron year. Even though its population is a fraction of India and China. Trump just could not acknowledge the pandemic or take timely actions. He just wished it away all the while telling the people that there is nothing to worry about. But it did not go away.
Another political casualty in the US was the recommendation to wear masks and maintain social distancing. It became a politico-cultural war between the two parties regardless of the death and destruction all around. Political foundations built on distrust of science played a major role in the spread of the disease. Scientific recommendations fell by the wayside in favor of the political narratives. But then the virus did not make any distinction between the people belonging to different cultures or political beliefs. People were infected regardless.
Vaccinations picked up steam in the US with the approval of the third vaccine from Johnson and Johnson, earlier two being Pfizer and Moderna. But still the tail of the virus continues to wag strongly as the masks and social distancing are being ignored. Going forward, any nation which ignores science can do so at its own peril. Science and technology are not just for building the internet or launching spacecraft to distant planets. They impact the health and medicine in our day to day lives. It is an intersection of physics, chemistry and biology.
More recently, a climate extremity was experienced in the state of Texas. The usually warm state got hit by a severe cold wave. The freezing temperatures knocked off the power lines and the gas and water lines as well. As a result the power grid went down plunging the state into darkness for days. While the water and gas supplies were severely reduced leading the residents to coldness as well. The political parties jumped up pointing fingers at each other. Those driven by science claiming climate change as responsible for the extreme weather, while the others claimed that the use of alternative energies like solar and wind caused the power grid to collapse.
The use of alternative energies is growing worldwide, not only in the US. Europe, China and India have more such capacity. Since the alternative energies are intermittent – only when the sun shines or the wind blows, it can cause grid stability problems. The panacea is to make the grid as wide as possible and with all the sources including gas and coal based ones connected to it. This will even out the imbalances. Imbalance from different sources. Wind will be blowing in some part of the grid or the other. Likewise the sun will be shining in some part or the other. Imbalance from supply and demand. Excess power may get generated in one part of the grid while more can be consumed from some other part. This kind of delicate balancing act is required until the technology matures sufficiently to store electricity and use later. Currently there is no equivalent of a water tank for the power supply. You need to consume whatever you produce.
The Texas grid had a problem. Although it is big, it is isolated from the rest of the country. Partly as a result of the state government deregulation. Letting the market forces decide what investments can be made by the power companies, led to lack of planning for extreme weather. Winterizing the grid could have prevented the pipes and the infrastructure from freezing. The same way as the pipes in New York do not freeze because winters are constantly cold there and the infrastructure is designed to handle it. But that would have meant upfront investments which were not made in Texas. Indian and Chinese power grids are wider than that of Texas.
The third example is from Fintech – the use of technology to make financial services widely available. US was the leader in the decades gone by. Credit cards were invented in the US. They were one of the earliest forms of spending and paying later. Then came the ATM (Automated Teller Machines) which made round the clock access to money possible. With the advent of the internet, online banking brought banking to people’s homes. China and then India took the lead in making banking available through mobile phones. Now African countries like Kenya are building on the mobile platform. For example, M-pesa is a very popular form of digital transfer of money. Now the US is playing the catch up game on digitization of finance.
Whoever masters the digital infrastructure has a bright future. 5G mobile technology and the super apps which make use of such technology will be the key success factors. Appropriate use of science and technology with the right combination of culture and identity is needed. Any lop sided combination of these factors will not cut it. Science and technology are so complex and specialized that deference to the experts is a key requirement. No country can keep up the lead all the time. The baton keeps moving amongst the countries. If not over the years, at least over the decades. And leadership makes all the difference. It is the shepherd who misleads the sheep.
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