Seeding STEM to Nurture Nations
Thank you for that kind introduction.
I want to express my deep gratitude to Shah Kamran for inviting me to speak at Cambridge University.
It is truly an honor to be here at this storied institution which has produced well over 100 noble laureates and 15 British prime ministers and is always ranked as one of the top universities in the world. It is also an honor to be in England which has so many other wonderful institutions that have contributed so much to the history and development of higher education world-wide.
The greatest honor though is to be with all of you leaders in the STEM field at this UK Asia Summit. That is because you are involved in creating the future and writing the next chapters for your fields’ and the world’s history. Thank you for that.
I must confess that when Shah Kamran invited me to give the keynote address at this SeedingStem event and suggested talking on world peace, protecting democracy, poverty, inequality and technology transfer, I accepted immediately because those subjects are of keen importance and in my wheelhouse.
Then, when I looked at the agenda for the conference with all its technical topics such as infectious RNA viruses and natural killer cells and immunity, for a little while, I thought maybe I was going to be in the wrong place talking about the wrong things. The more I thought about it, however, I realized I was in exactly the right place talking about the right things with the right people
That’s because the world is in a troubled state and under attack on many fronts. Around the globe, there is climate change, intractable diseases, rampant poverty, malnourishment and extreme hunger, substantial illiteracy, contentious conflicts within and between countries, and the decline of democracies. These conditions and others must be addressed and corrected to make the world a better place.
The world and the people on this planet are in desperate need of nurturing. The definition of nurture is “to care for and encourage the growth and development of something or someone.”
Because of SeedingStem’s mission of knowledge sharing and technology transfer from the developed world to the developing one, you are the perfect group to be those nurturers. In my mind’s eye, those of you in the STEM field are in the business of creating the future and enhancing people’s lives through nurturing. That is why I have titled my talk SeedingSTEM to Nurture Nations.
In the remainder of my talk I want to share some thoughts with you on the world’s past, its present, and its future. I will look briefly at the past, then assess where we stand today in a number of areas, and finally, I will contemplate the future and what we can do to make it a promising one for this tiny sphere we call the earth and its population of more than 7.5 billion.
Looking at the Past
Let me begin looking at the past not by recalling what happened centuries or decades ago but in terms of what two well-known English authors, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, predicted the future might look like in two of the most famous science fiction novels of all times: 1984 and Brave New World.
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949.
I am certain that some of you have read one or both these books. If you have not, let me tell you they were not encouraging about the world’s future. They both paint a very dystopian picture.
Huxley portrays a Brave New World in which people are genetically modified, dumbed-down, pleasure seeking and essentially sleepwalking through life with little self-motivation or personal control. By contrast, in 1984, Orwell portrays a totalitarian state in which Big Brother is using technology and other means to spy on every one and to restrict citizens’ personal freedom.
That was the view back then of what things might look like now or at some point in the future. The good news is that neither vision has been completely achieved.
But, if one examines China, North Korea, Russia and other dictatorships today, there are absolutely elements of 1984. And, if one examines the United States, the U.K and other democracies, it is possible to see elements of Brave New World and 1984. What neither Huxley nor Orwell envisioned though was a cyberspace in which private technology companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have access to so much unlimited information on their hundreds of millions of users and who use it to exploit them.
Looking at the Present
That brings me to the present. There is no question if one looks at where the world and we homo sapiens who inhabit it stand today in 2019, we are in the cross hairs. In my opinion, the decisions that are made and the actions that are taken over the next few decades will be determinative. While some politicians and a few of the very wealthy see things through rose color glasses, nearly every social, political and economic commentator and independent third parties see shades of gray trending toward darkness.
We could spend the rest of this Summit talking about the state of the world and its needs. Instead, to establish how critical the context for looking at and discussing the future and our roles and responsibilities regarding it is, I will highlight just a few points. I will look at the following areas: climate change, poverty, inequality, illiteracy, world peace and democracy. Starting with climate change.
- Climate Change: In October of last year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the environment is worsening at a faster pace than originally projected and that unless major changes are made by 2040 there will be disastrous consequences. If that doesn’t frighten you enough, I recommend that you read David-Wallace Wells brilliant book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. No one could be a climate change denier after reading this book.
- Poverty: The poverty news is not as bleak as climate change. In September of last year, the World Bank reported that the most recent data available showed that extreme poverty fell to a new low of 10 percent down from 11 percent. That still means that nearly ¾ of a billion people are surviving on $1.90 or less a day. That is tragic.
- Inequality: While extreme poverty is decreasing numerous recent studies show that inequality is increasing at a dramatic pace. Inequality.org reports that in 2018 the world richest 1 percent, owned 45 percent of the world’s wealth. And, since 1980 the share of national income of the richest 1 percent has increased rapidly in the United States, Canada, India, and Russia.
- Malnutrition: UNICEF released a report in March of this year showing that progress has been made around the world in reducing malnutrition in children from around 32% in 2000 to around 22% in 2018. Nonetheless, UNICEF stated that “nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 are attributable to undernutrition.”
- Illiteracy: On the subject of illiteracy, I would like to hone in here on my motherland of India. The 2011 census showed that the literacy rate in India was just above 74% compared to nearly 65% in the 2001 census. Sadly, the literacy rate for females was around 65% compared to almost 81% for males. And, the highest illiteracy rate by religion was Muslims at close to 43%.
- World Peace: Given the current state of world affairs, the phrase world peace is almost an oxymoron. Whether it is the ongoing conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, the dust-up earlier this year between Pakistan and India, North Korea once again testing missiles, the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine, Syria and Yemen, the list goes on and on and on. These never-ending conflicts are a formula for future disaster.
- Democracy: When Freedom House released its report Freedom in the World 2018 it declared that Democracy was in crisis saying that for the 12th consecutive year political rights and civil liberties declined and that 71 countries suffered net declines and only 35 registered gains. Things have not gotten any better in the past year. Freedom House’s report Freedom in the World 2019 declared Democracy was in retreat with 68 countries showing net declines. If there is no democracy, the world will never be the world we know or want it to be.
Looking at the Future
When you sum up those indicators from the present, and others such as the state of health care world-wide and the tremendous growth in artificial intelligence which will displace millions and millions of low skill jobs, they are not harbingers for an optimistic or utopian future for the world or its citizens.
What can be done to reverse this? What can SeedingSTEM do to blow away the dark clouds and bring bright sunlight to shine on the world and its nations?
You already have a good start by committing to applying your technical knowledge through the transfer of technology to developing countries. You have begun the journey to nurture nations and their citizens.
I would ask you to go two steps further. Move beyond your field or discipline to think about providing planning assistance and becoming civically engaged with those developing nations and their leaders as well. In terms of planning, collaborate with the leaders to help them put together master plans to address those conditions that are most critical and central to the development and future success of their countries and citizens.
When it comes to planning, I say make no little plans. Let me repeat that “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”
That is what Chicago city planner Daniel Burnham said in 1910 as he was developing the master plan for the city of Chicago when it was more of a town than a city.
Burnham went on to say, “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”
I whole-heartedly agree with Burnham’s advice to make big plans. But, would it expand it to include those who will help do it to include daughters and granddaughters not just sons and grandsons.
I agree with Burnham’s perspective because I have seen the advantage and benefits of planning and civic engagement on life’s journey myself. I want to tell you a short story on that about someone I know relatively well. That someone is Frank Islam.
My journey and story began in a small rural Indian city named Azamgarh where I was born. While I was attending Aligarh Muslim University when I met Wolfgang Thron, a visiting college professor of Mathematics from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. He convinced me that I should go to America to pursue expanded opportunities and get a cutting-edge education in the emerging field of computer science.
So, even though it was scary, I decided to leave my family and friends in India. And, with just a few hundred dollars in my pocket and knowing no-one went to Boulder, Colorado
There I studied diligently, made a few friends and supported myself by working in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Shaky’s pizza. I left Boulder with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees to pursue my life- long dream of owning a business.
I did not come from a family that owned a business. I had no personal experience or role model in business. So, I decided to do my apprenticeship and to learn the ropes by going to work in two large IT companies. That was my working plan.
With that experience, I felt ready to go out on my own and I acquired the QSS Group, an IT company in Washington, DC, in 1994 for $45,000. My wife Debbie and I had to mortgage our home to do that.
I must admit the first years were not easy. I worked 12-hour days seven days a week for little to no money. There were many dark and desperate days but we persevered.
With the help of a wonderful management team that I recruited over time, we created sound business plans and built the QSS Group from 1 employee – me – to more than 3,000 employees and revenue in excess of $300 million dollars.
The team of talented managers were central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. So, when you asked me how I became successful, it was not me but we who made it happen.
In 2007, after 13 years, I sold the QSS Group to Perot Systems. That sale allowed me to move on to the current stage of my career in philanthropy focused primarily on education, world peace, the arts and civic engagement. In many ways process of sharing and giving back is as – and even more rewarding – than any money that I earned throughout my business career.
That is my story. I am beneficiary of America’s kindness and generosity. My journey was not a straight line. Indeed, there were many twists and turns. And the final destination was not certain. What enabled me to prevail on the journey was the opportunity presented by the American Dream.
Let me shift gears now and move from journey to focus on philanthropy. I engage in what I call purposeful philanthropy. Purposeful philanthropy requires planning and engagement.
Purposeful philanthropy is making investments directed at creating a difference in pivot point areas that matter to the future of society. The returns on those investments are changes to problematic conditions and/or the creation of individuals who will become change agents to address those conditions.
There is a distinction between purposeful philanthropy and charity. The distinction is a critical one.
The focus in charity is to provide a handout. The focus in purposeful philanthropy is to provide a hand-up – to enable and empower people by giving them a helping hand.
There certainly must be charitable support and assistance to address the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged and natural disasters.
Charity as the sole means of philanthropy, however, has serious limitations. It does not get at the root cause nor change the underlying reason for the need for the charity.
By contrast, purposeful philanthropy concentrates on improving circumstances and conditions. This hand-up approach can take a broad variety of forms, ranging from eliminating contaminated water that poisons those who drink or bathe in it; to enhancing the safety of working conditions; to developing the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes and behaviors for a person to be successful in life.
The pivot point areas — areas that can be leveraged and effectively addressed to effectuate change and achieve positive outcomes — for purposeful philanthropy are virtually endless. As I noted, my personal priority philanthropic areas are education, arts, world peace and civic engagement.
I have chosen those areas because they are important to me and because I know that improvement in them can make a substantial difference. Let me give you the short reasons for my selecting those areas and tell you a little bit about my investments in them.
Education is the powerful equalizer and opportunity creator. It moves people up the ladder and to help others climb the ladder with them.
In the educational arena, I have supported many scholarships at colleges in the United States. My most significant investment though has been in India where in February of 2017 my wife Debbie and I dedicated the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex at Aligarh Muslim University. We invested $2.5 M to build Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex and Frank and Debbie Islam Auditorium at the Mass Communication Department at Aligarh Muslim University.
At that dedication, I predicted: “From this management complex will come the future leaders who will make the world a better place.” I firmly believe that. I also firmly believe that the students are our best hope. This is my way of saying Thank you and keeping the hope alive and well.
President John F. Kennedy said: “Art nourishes the roots of a culture.” It connects and inspires citizens and communities. It has a unifying and healing power. The art transcends all boundaries. It represents the best of our humanity. I agree with President Kennedy’s perspective and that is why I agreed to serve on the board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and we invested $1M in its programs to expose youth to the arts.
We are living in an increasingly dangerous world and turbulent times. World peace is essential for the future of this planet. There is much deadly conflict now and threats of it around the globe which must be controlled. Recognizing this, we invested $1M to the U.S. Institute for Peace to develop programs to try to find peaceful means for conflict resolution.
India and the United States of America are the world’s two largest democracies. Civic engagement is essential to keep those democracies vibrant and vital.
The free press is one of the defining qualities of a healthy democracy and a means for promoting civic engagement. Recognizing this, my wife Debbie and I have supported Alfred Friendly Press Partners Scholarships to bring experienced journalists from India to work at a newspaper for six months at a newspaper in the United States and study at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
That’s a brief summary of some of my philanthropic involvement in the areas that are most important to me. I’d like to shift gears for a few minutes and shine a bright spotlight on an area that needs much more attention in terms of philanthropy. That is support for and the buttressing of democracy itself.
In this 21st century, democracy is descending and autocracy is ascending in countries around the world. Numerous studies are showing that.
For example, a Pew Research Center survey last year of citizens in 38 nations around the world found only, and I quote, a “shallow commitment to representative democracy” and “substantial percentages willing to consider nondemocratic options” across all of those countries.
That’s a bit abstract and conceptual. Let me bring it up close and personal by focusing on the two countries of my heritage – America and India.
The Pew study found that in the United States 40 percent of the respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 46 percent were less committed, and 7 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
That’s not very good. But it is exceptional compared to the findings for India.
The Pew study disclosed that of all the countries surveyed “support for a strong leader who is unchecked by the judiciary or parliament is highest in India.” Only 8 percent of the Indian respondents were fully committed to a representative democracy, 67 percent were less committed, and 9 percent preferred a non-democratic option.
India and the United States are the world’s two largest democracies. Active and engaged citizenship is essential to keep those democracies vital and vibrant and exemplars for democracy world-wide.
The Pew findings, in conjunction with other studies that I have reviewed, indicate that citizenship support is eroding rather than increasing. That is scary – very scary. And, that is why at the beginning of 2019 I established the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. The mission of the institution is to provide a wide range of assistance and support civic learning and engagement for youth.
I cite these areas and my investments in them for illustration purposes only. Each of us must choose the area or areas that matter for our engagement. The essential thing is to make that choice and to invest. The size of that investment isn’t what counts. The act of investment does.
As members of SeedingSTEM you are already investing in nurturing nations. I thank you and applaud you for that. As distinguished educators, scientists, doctors and engineers, mathematicians and engineers your contributions are and will be substantial.
Given the enormous scope and the nature of the needs that I have outlined in my presentation, as I move toward the end of my Remark, I call upon you to do even more. I ask you to:
- Amplify – increase your ongoing discussions and dialogue regarding what can be done to nurture nations
- Magnify – increase the size of the effort in all the areas SeedingSTEM addresses
- Intensify – concentrate attention on one or two areas where SeedingSTEM or you can make the biggest difference
Early on in my remarks I referred to the works of two famous English authors, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, In closing let me borrow words from another – even more famous – Englishman. Those words are: “Never give in.”
Never give in. Winston Churchill said that to the school boys at Harrow School in 1941 near the beginning of World War II. Churchill said specifically “Never give in. Never give in, except to the convictions of honor and good sense.”
That was good advice more than 75 years ago. It is good advice today.
I do not believe that we are facing World War III today. But a war is being waged on our world. Those of you in SeedingSTEM can be in the forefront of helping us win that war by nurturing nations and citizens. I ask you to never give in until you have ensured the future of our world for generations to come.
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you. God bless you for all you have done and the nurturing you will do in the future. I look forward to hearing and learning from you as we move through the rest of the agenda for this Summit.