Building resistance to corruption

There has been a lot of news recently about the Ranbaxy scam, which I have read, and by which I am very disturbed. The fact that one of India’s largest pharma companies – and a company that made nearly Rs 2,000 crores of profits after tax in the last 3 years – engaged in such gross and blatant falsification of results, beggars the imagination. The litany of wrongs that they’ve committed seems unending: making up faked data, swapping samples with competitors’ products, and even forging their own standard operating procedures, artificially ageing them by cooking in a steam room overnight.

In the last few years, with movements like Anna Hazare’s capturing the imagination of many Indians, I find that subconsciously, we believe that corruption is limited to politicians, and more generally to the public sector. Ranbaxy makes me think deeply about a more pervasive corruption, and how it has almost become part of the Indian DNA. What causes this corruption? And how do we fix it?

As a thought experiment, I put myself in the shoes of the CEO of Ranbaxy, who is told that his company’s research data is fabricated, and now has to decide what to do. Realize, first of all, that the decision is not black-and-white. There is no evidence (so far, at least) that the medicines that Ranbaxy released killed anyone. It appears that most of the medicines that Ranbaxy sold were, in fact, more or less effective as claimed. The falsifications they indulged in were primarily related to the Regulatory Approvals process. As a CEO, if I thought (and the market seemed to confirm) that my medicines were effective enough – but the FDA wanted me to perform costly and seemingly unnecessary experiments for certification, would I consider it a crime to forge? I know many people who would not mind.

But therein lies the danger. As we develop greater and greater dependence on science in human society, it is important for the people in-charge to have a very clear understanding of the link between science, technology, products and consumers. We know from our days of schoolboy experiments in the Physics and Chemistry labs, for example, that not all experiments succeed; not always do we get the results we expect. However, if we are well-trained in science or engineering, we slowly come to terms with the fact that even in the face of this uncertainty – Nature, after all, has no obligation to conform to our Science – we still find enough that is predictable and controllable, to be able to make technology, build products, and sell them to customers.

In the use of any science to serve a customer, there is an intricate interplay of human knowledge, human ignorance, technology and risk. Regulators do not insist on procedures because they want to create excess work for entrepreneurs; they do so because they (and most good scientists) understand that certain procedures and experiments help reduce the inherent risk of applied science.

I think the decision to cut corners in Ranbaxy’s case was driven by a corporate culture that placed relentless focus on profits, to the detriment of good science. In India, we tend to have an ‘examination mentality’ – we feel very comfortable and secure if our performance, aspirations and ambitions can be boiled down to one number. We like an examination score because it is easy to calculate, easy to communicate, and standardized – and so it is with profit.

The societal problem occurs when the people in charge of making money from science and technology understand money, but do not understand science. They do not realize that their fragile world of profits rests upon that enormous philosophical edifice called “good science”. And they do not realize the cost of the corners that they callously cut.

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At its heart, corruption happens when quality is compromised. And where there is a strong aspiration to high quality, there is little room for corruption. How, then, can we cultivate this aspiration to quality? One potential source is if it is part of our culture; we would have an “immune resistance” to corruption if we lived in a corruption-free society. But that, for now, remains a pipe dream in India.

I think the strength to resist corruption should come, not from a person’s society, but from their profession. It is as repugnant for a well-trained engineer to cut corners while building a bridge, as it is for a mathematician to attest that 2 and 2 is 5. When we train our young engineers for ethics, the overarching theme should be that their first loyalty is always to quality, that secret ingredient that helps us commercialize science.

Alongside, we must ensure that our best engineers are empowered with business skills that will enable them to lead businesses, instead of bean-counters. This is, for example, a defining feature of German engineering companies: 60% of German executives have a PhD. When someone who has learnt the ethics of science (instead of the ethics of finance) runs a company, they may make less profit – but ultimately, the world will be a better place to live in.

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