Is There Hope for Economics? Yes – At Last!

By Shlomo Maital

Kremer, Duflo, Banerjee

   Almost eight years ago, in November 2011, I wrote a blog about, among others, two MIT economists named Duflo and Banerjee, who FINALLY were asking the right question (why are so many people in the world so poor, and what can be done about it?) and FINALLY answering it, by doing field-based experiments with real money and real people, instead of building mathematical models of Alice in Wonderland. *

     Together with Harvard University Professor Mark Kremer, they have been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. Duflo is the youngest economist ever to win it (she’s 46) and only the 2nd woman. She and Banerjee are spouses. Banerjee is of Indian ancestry. Duflo is French. (President Trump: Still think all immigrants are drug dealers, murders and rapists?)

     I am an economist. And I was born too soon (in 1942). If I had been born in, say, 1982, I would have caught the wave of behavioral economics, which applied psychology to understanding how people really behave, instead of using abstract math. (My wife, a psychologist, and I published papers on behavioral economics as early as 1972 – but at that time, nobody was listening). If I had been born in, say, 1997, I might have done meaningful research in the field that helped build evidence-based policy.

   Here is an example of powerful field experiments that change millions of lives, that I wrote about in my 2011 blog (based on an NYT column by Nicholas Kristof):

     “Prof. Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, helped pioneer randomized trials in antipoverty work. In the 1990s, Kremer began studying how to improve education in Kenya, Africa, trying different approaches in randomly selected batches of schools. One intervention he tried was deworming kids — and bingo! In much of the developing world, most kids have intestinal worms, leaving them sick, anemic and more likely to miss school. Deworming is very cheap (a pill costing a few pennies), and, in the experiment he did with Edward Miguel, it resulted in 25 percent less absenteeism. Even years later, the kids who had been randomly chosen to be dewormed were earning more money than other kids. Kremer estimates that the cost of keeping a kid in school for an additional year by building schools or by subsidizing school uniforms is more than $100, while by deworming kids, the cost drops to $3.50. (In a pinch, kids can usually go to “school” in a church or mosque without a uniform.)”

     p.s. The Government of Kenya, impressed by Kremer’s study, supplied deworming medicine to nearly all Kenyan children, vastly improving their lives.  It is incredible that in the West, we give deworming pills to our puppies and pet dogs regularly — but only Kremer thought to try giving it to African kids!

     In the 1880’s the Economics profession made a terrible mistake. Two leading economists, Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons, were rivals. Marshall had a practical, behavioral evidence-based approach. He defined economics as the “study of people as they work and live in the ordinary business of life.” Jevons? Well, he was a failed mathematician and physicist. He slapped together a few equations, to create an abstract model of economics – and economists loved it! They swallowed it! They dumped Marshall.

     Why? Because the queen of science at the time was physics, and physics was highly mathematical. Maybe…economics could be as prestigious and ‘scientific’ as physics? Problem is – people are not electrons. You study them, not by quantum mechanics, but by observation and experiment. But it took economics 130 years to figure that out. And in the meantime, wrongheaded math-based pie-in-the-sky economics detached from reality did huge damage to the world – lately, in 2008, when we reaped what free-market greed-is-good economists had sowed..

     Banerjee was born in Calcutta, India, to Nirmala Banerjee, a professor of economics and Dipak Banerjee, a professor and the head of the Department of Economics. Duflo was born in 1972 in Paris. She is the daughter of Michel Duflo, a mathematics professor, and his wife Violaine, a pediatrician. According to Wikipedia, “during Duflo’s childhood, her mother often participated in medical humanitarian project”.

     In acknowledging her Nobel, Duflo noted that far too few women choose economics as a profession, and expressed the hope her Nobel would inspire more women to enter the field.   What will you do with the money? journalists asked. She responded that when Marie Curie won her Nobel, she used the money to buy one gram of radium. Duflo said she too hoped to use the resources to further field research on poverty.

     As Esther Duflo said herself, the importance of her Nobel, is that it will inspire other young economics students to follow in her footsteps, and ask real questions and find real field-based human answers on which effective policy can be built.

     I wish I could start my career again. You have to know when to be born.

       * Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. PublicAffairs (2011). Their new book: Good Economics for Hard Times, will be published in November 2019.




At Last, A Nobel – At Age 97!

By Shlomo Maital

John Goodenough

This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to three scientists: John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino share the prize.

Goodenough is American, Whittingham is British and Yoshino is Japanese.

The three won the prize for their work in developing lithium-ion batteries, which are ubiquitous in our lives, including in all our cell phones.

Goodenough has the best story. According to the Wall Street Journal,

“At age 97, Dr. Goodenough of the University of Texas in Austin, who was born in Germany of American parents, is the oldest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize.

   “I’m extremely happy that the lithium-ion battery has been able to help communications through the world,” Dr. Goodenough said during a call with reporters from London, where he is receiving the 2019 Copley Medal for his contribution to materials technology. While there, he learned he had also won this year’s chemistry Nobel.

“It’s been a very eventful day,” he added .”

   The three have been touted for a Nobel for over a decade. Thank goodness, Goodenough lived long enough to win it (Nobel’s are never awarded posthumously).

       Don’t you love his wonderful understatement, about an “eventful day”?

   A member of the Nobel Chemistry committee noted: “Lithium-ion batteries can be combined with energy sources that fluctuate over time, such as solar power, to provide a seamless power supply. The batteries have also enabled a switch from fossil-fuel transportation to electric transportation.”

      p.s.  Some weeks ago, I wrote a magazine column about “Snow-Capped Idea Volcanoes” — senior citizens who have creative ideas and implement them.  In it I mentioned Goodenough: “John Goodenough and his team at University of Texas (Austin) “has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity”, wrote Pagan Kennedy, in the New York Times, in April 2017.   “He and his team filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works, as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles.”    



Labor Unions’ Last Stand

By Shlomo Maital

   Some 50,000 General Motors workers, members of the UAW United Auto Workers, are striking; the strike is over 3 weeks old, and each side has now hardened its position.

   Strikes were quite rare for two decades or more in the US. But last year, half a million workers went on strike. So – what is going on?

     GM workers face a bleak future. Car producers are shifting to electric vehicles (including in China) and producing those takes far fewer workers. Moreover, car production today is highly roboticized.  GM, which was bailed out by the US government during the 2008 financial crisis, is now highly profitable; but it has no intention of getting locked into an expensive labor contract, when it plans to shed thousands of workers and close plants.

     In the 1950’s a third of all workers belonged to unions, in the US. Today it is just about one in ten. As manufacturing migrated to Asia, and services dominated, unions shrank. Service jobs are mostly non-union. Moreover, employers switched to hiring temporary or contract workers, who have no social or pension rights, to cut costs. Google, for instance, employs more such ‘temps’ than regular employees. (Recently, a group of Google contract workers in Pittsburgh organized themselves into a union – a trend that may spread).

     GM workers get minimal strike pay – but they are determined. So is GM. In a global economy, GM can produce anywhere – in Mexico, or even in China. So labor has become a commodity whose price is cheap and getting cheaper at times. This has devastated the middle class, where once UAW jobs paid $24 an hour and more. Those jobs are disappearing.

     The impoverishment and commoditization of labor in the US– one of the negative consequences of globalization – have been largely ignored, even by Obama and the Democrats.    One result, I believe, was Trump’s election. Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing back to the US is utterly empty. But his voters, blue collar workers, choose to vote for someone who voices their pain, even if they know his promises are utterly hollow.

   At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s last stand, the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes defeated the US Army’s 7th Cavalry. The underdogs won.

     I’m afraid that in the UAW’s last stand against GM, the labor underdogs will lose. And the only Democrat presidential candidate who seems to notice is the dark horse candidate Andrew Yang, who wants to pay workers a guaranteed income. Sooner or later, we may all come to realize that there is no other choice.






The Death of Truth – And What We Can Do About It

By Shlomo Maital

Bloomberg reports that the new Chinese “face swapping” app, called Zao, already has many millions of users:

     Chinese face-swap app Zao rocketed to the top of app store charts over the weekend, but user delight at the prospect of becoming instant superstars quickly turned sour as privacy implications began to sink in.     Launched recently, Zao is currently topping the free download chart on China’s iOS store. Its popularity has also pushed another face-swap app, Yanji, to fifth place on the list. Behind Zao is a company fully owned by Chinese hookup and live-streaming service Momo Inc. President Wang Li and co-Founder Lei Xiaoliang, according to public company registration documents.

   Let’s face facts. We used to say, “I’ll believe it, when I see it.” Or: “I trust my own eyes”. Or “I saw it myself!”. Or: “Show me!”.   That meant — seeing is believing.

This is no longer the case. With Zao, you can place your own self at the prow of the Titanic, instead of Leonardo DiCaprio.

   This could be amusing. But it’s not. What it means is, you can no longer believe your eyes, or your ears, for that matter.   How does one navigate, in a world where the line between truth and falsehood is erased?

   In 2016, this lie was spread and widely believed: “ … emails about social gatherings involving “pizza,” were code for something much darker; a secret underground human trafficking/child sex abuse ring, involving senior members of the Clinton campaign.”

   Many years ago, a TIME magazine cover proclaimed, “God is Dead”. Perhaps today, there could be a cover, “Truth is Dead”. If you can’t believe your eyes or your ears… what do you do?

   I have no idea. But here is one very small insignificant suggestion. Make “critical thinking” a key part of all school and university curricula. Let each of us renew and hone our skill at thinking critically, and questioning, about everything we hear and read.

   Is this sad? Is it sad we live in a world where nothing can be taken on faith, where everything has to be questioned, no matter what the source?   And it won’t get better. As experts find ways to identify “face swaps”, those who produce such software find ways to defeat them. Why? Because there is far more money in selling face-swap apps than there is in finding ways to expose them.

     Huxley’s novel Brave New World focused on a future world, in which everyone lost their individual identity. That hasn’t happened. Today’s brave new world is one where everyone is losing the crucial value of trust and truth.

    If you have to think critically about everything, then you have to think critically about everyone. If you can’t trust anything, then you implicitly can’t trust anyone. Somehow, some smart people are going to have to find a way to deal with this. Because the very fabric of society is coming apart, as a result.

Choose Empathy – Practice Makes Perfect

By Shlomo Maital


Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It contrasts with sympathy, which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”.

   Surely empathy is a fundamental basis of all that is good in society. And it has been, long before moral philosopher (not economist!) Adam Smith wrote about “fellow-feelings” in his 1759 book Theory of Moral Sentiments.

   Well — leave it to the professors to challenge even the most common-sense ideas. Unfortunately I played this silly game myself for decades. Here’s how it works: Strap on your revolver, tie the holster to your thigh, and go looking for the fastest gun in town. Challenge him to a gunfight. If you win you become famous. If you lose, well — in publish or perish nobody dies. You get to try again.

     Take empathy, for instance. What could be bad? Well —   Yale University Professor Paul Bloom’s 2016 book Against Empathy argues: “many agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices.”   Basically, Bloom writes, we feel empathy mainly towards those who are like us, so this is part of the tribalism and identity politics that fracture society today around the world.  This is an utterly wrong-headed definition of empathy, that begs the question.

   I much prefer Jamil Zaki’s position, in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. (Crown Books: June 2019). Zaki is head of the Stanford Univ. Social Neuroscience Lab. He echoes former President Barack Obama’s observation that “the US is suffering from an ‘empathy deficit’“. He cites evidence that people today are less caring (about others) than we were 30 years ago.   Based on experiments in his lab, Zaki shows that empathy is not a fixed trait, one we are born with in fixed amounts.   Instead it is a skill, or even a ‘muscle’, that can be strengthened through effort, and through practice. He brings examples, like Washington, D.C. police officers seeking to reduce police violence by changing their culture toward empathy.  

   Zaki told Shankar Vedantam, on the Hidden Brain podcast, “…empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.” I wonder, Professor Bloom, how in the world can THAT be a cause of tribalism?

   So, what can you do to strengthen your empathy muscles? Here’s my suggestion. Try the “opposing minds” exercise. Think about a principle you hold strongly. Say – the right of migrants to seek safe haven, health care and education in wealthy nations. (Zaki himself was born and raised in Florida, but his name sounds like he was a child of immigrants). Now, make the case for the precise opposite: Exclude all migrants. Is it possible to empathize even with those whom you may regard as ‘racist’?   Do you weaken – or strengthen – your own belief through such empathy? And if the ‘racists’ did the same, would we perhaps find more common ground, for consensual action?  



Understanding the Brexit Disaster:

Ask the Psychologists!

By Shlomo Maital

I’ve been glued to our TV, for weeks, watching the British debate in Parliament what to do next about Brexit. I’ve watched how the world’s oldest elected Parliament cannot find a majority for anything – except, maybe, NOT to crash out of the EU. I’ve watched how the Trump-like PM Boris Johnson tries to circumvent Parliament, in the name of democracy but instead mortally wounding it. I studied for a year in Manchester, and feel deeply sorry for the people of Britain – and am trying to understand how they got into this pickle.

     Enter the psychologists. In the excellent podcast Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedanta, the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert was recently interviewed. He spoke about this – we humans are incorrigibly bad at predicting the future,, specifically, in predicting how we will feel in future about a decision made in the present.

   The British people voted narrowly (52 for, 48 against) to leave the EU, in 2016. Mainly they voted for “take our country back”, a slogan pushed by pro-Brexit politicians, driven by anger at the flood of migrants crossing the English Channel that under EU rules could not be stopped.

     But what about other aspects of leaving the EU? What about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border? What about all the EU citizens living in Britain? What about trade, tariffs, customs? Then-PM David Cameron, who initiated the referendum, never believed it would pass, and never developed realistic future scenarios about how leaving the EU would be done. Former PM Theresa May stubbornly pushed the same leave-EU proposal to Parliament three times – despite zero chance of it passing.

       Professor Gilbert explains, basically, that when we make a decision, we are pretty hopeless about predicting how we will feel about it. As the Brits learn more about what leaving the EU means – crashing out with no deal, in particular, as Johnson obsessively wants — I believe they regret their initial vote in 2016. In particular — if only 1.5 per cent of those who voted “leave” now change their mind and would vote ‘stay’ – the referendum would be reversed.   Yet — cynics, in the name of democracy, say “the result of a referendum is set in stone” – even though Parliament, elected by the people, can change its mind a dozen times a day, also in the name of democracy.

     Basically – people are flawed in how they predict how they will feel about a decision in the future. We know this from the work of psychologists, and from our own introspection.

     Conclusion: Do another referendum on “leave or stay”. Take into account that humans are flawed. Give the British people another chance.

       But Johnson and pro-Brexit politicians insist this is undemocratic. Wrong.

       The 2016 referendum was terribly flawed. The British people were not told the full story. They voted on the basis of a narrow idea, ‘take our country back’. They weren’t told, how precisely this would be done.

       So – do it again. Offer clear precise scenarios. And offer a clear ‘leave’ plan, including Ireland.


Disruption – It’s Personal!

 By Shlomo Maital


   In the musical Hair, there is a song, The Age of Aquarius.   Today, we might sing, The Age of Disruption. Technology is disrupting virtually everything – and everyone needs to be keenly aware of how to live under continual disruption.

     A short and very partial list: Amazon disrupted bookstores, then all retail stores; Tesla’s electric vehicles disrupts GM, Ford and big dinosaur car firms; Blockbuster disrupted movies by renting DVD’s, then Netflix disrupted (bankrupted) Blockbuster by mailing DVD’s, then disrupted cable and networks with streamed creative content; Uber disrupts taxis, Coursera, EdX etc. disrupt traditional colleges, Sprite and Verizon disrupted copper phone lines, Skype disrupted phone companies, Facebook and Google disrupted advertising, especially print and TV, Internet disrupts everything, especially print magazines and newspapers.. and AI disrupts all routine tasks (e.g. airport check in, without seeing a human being before security).

Notice — virtually always, it’s small upstarts that disrupt the big giants — dinosaurs too slow and too dumb to innovate.  Often though they use their size and muscle to catch up.  Microsoft seems to have caught up to Amazon in Cloud services, despite being way way behind at first.

     It’s a good news/bad news joke. The good news is, all this disruption does create value for people, otherwise it would not be disruptive. The bad news is, disruption ruins big dinosaur companies who are also big employers. So far, however, these massive shifts (e.g. from assembly lines manned by human hands to ones without any at all) seem to create lots of jobs while destroying many – but that’s little comfort if your own personal skill suddenly becomes valueless.

     Disruption is highly personal. Be prepared to be disrupted. It will happen to everyone. Think about how, why and when. Think about what to do to prepare. Think about your personal skills and passions that fulfill two conditions: You love doing them, and are good at it; and they create value for many people, in ways that machines and algorithms cannot.

     As an educator, I feel disrupted because young people today can learn things on their own that I used to teach them. Solution: Embrace the disruption and try hard to partner with it, so that a human element is needed and creates value.

     How are you being disrupted? And how are you adapting?

Why the World Economy is Slowing – And What You Should Do

 By Shlomo Maital  

             graph: Federal Reserve, Wells Fargo, Washington Post

What in the world is going on? It’s time to try to make some sense of it.

The Dow-Jones stock index takes its biggest plunge of the year. Bond markets are jumpy. And everyone talks about the inverted yield curve.   What is going on?

Let’s try to understand all this.

    The ‘yield curve’ is simply a chart or table, showing the rate of interest you make on your investment, and the length of time you invest the money. In normal times, the longer the time you commit your money, the higher the return or yield. It’s just natural. A longer time period means more risk.

    But once in a while, the normal order of things gets turned upside down. And that is what is happening now. Why?

     When investors are afraid that a recession – an economic slowdown — is brewing, they anticipate that Central Banks will have to lower interest rates in response. So they buy longer-term bonds to ‘lock in’ current higher rates, in the knowledge that soon those rates will come down.

   That rise in demand for, say, 10-year bonds, raises the price of the bonds, by the law of supply and demand, and when the price of a bond goes up, then its rate of interest goes down. Why? If the bond coupon is $3 for a $100 bond, and if you pay $110 for the bond, your return is 3/110 or only 2.7%. Higher bond price, lower yield.

   That is what is happening now. The last global recession was in 2008, after the financial crash and panic of 2007/8. The current global expansion has lasted 10 years. It’s one of the longest such expansions. It is long in the tooth. It is the nature of business that after booms, come busts, big or small. And it seems time for a bust.

   As the graph above shows, since 1980 every single time the long-term yield or interest rate falls below the short-term rate, there has been a recession, within a few months.

   Other signs confirm this. China’s economy is slowing, growing slower than it has for decades. Europe is slowing – Germany is in recession already, Britain will be in recession after a crash-out Brexit, Italy is again in deep hot water. The US economy is also slowing, buoyed only by consumer spending. Business investment is low, because of uncertainty over the trade war, and the belief China will hope for a Trump defeat in 2020 and is simply waiting it out. So when Europe, China AND the US economies slow – there are no locomotives to pull the global economy out of the mud.

   This is bad news for President Trump. His overall approval rating is way below 50%. But his approval rating on the US economy alone is well above 50%. An economic slump could cost him re-election.  And he knows it.

     Trump has been fiercely critical of Jay Powell, Chair of the US Federal Reserve (central bank). For once, maybe only once, he is kind of right. Last September, the Fed raised interest rates slightly, by 25 basis points (0.25%) to current levels, the highest since April 2008. Whooops… not wise, when a slowdown is imminent, and when the Fed may hence have to do a sharp U-turn that lowers its credibility.

       For us working people, what does all this mean? Cut back on your spending somewhat. Set aside some money. The recession may be short, it may be long, or it may not happen. But chances are it will. Good to have a cushion on hand, if it comes. You never know.


How to Be a Good Person In Two Difficult Stages

  By Shlomo Maital

Amos Oz

    American writer and humorist James Thurber once observed, in a serious moment: It’s more important to know some of the questions than to know all the answers.

    And years later, Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman observed, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

   So, here is a question that is hard to answer – maybe even, one that can’t be answered.

   How can I be a good person? A better person?

     One of my big disappointments (of many) with business schools, is that they teach people how to be good managers, bottom-line driven, and not how to be good persons too.   The results are often disastrous (take, for instance, Oxycontin and Purdue Pharma).

   So, from the vantage point of my grey hair and over seven decades on this earth, here is my ‘take’ on the title question. And my answer, for certain, can and must be severely questioned.

     Becoming a good, and better, person, is a two-stage process.

   Stage One, or Grade One. Follow what the late author Amos Oz once said:   ‘We can fold all the moral imperatives, the Ten Commandments, and the human virtues, into a single commandment: Thou shalt not inflict pain. That is all. Do not hurt.’

   Cause no pain. This is the Ten Commandments folded into one. Oz died last December. He wrote many wonderful books and should have won a Nobel Prize. In her eulogy his daughter Fania Oz-Sulzberger quoted his ‘cause no pain’ words.  

   It’s hard to complete Grade One successfully. It’s complicated. What if, sometimes, you need to cause pain, to prevent more pain later? As doctors and surgeons may do?

   So, let’s say you pass Grade One. What is Grade Two?

   It is the core principle of startup entrepreneurship.

   Make meaning. How? Create value. Make people happy. Or more broadly:   Make people happier, smarter, healthier, wiser, more secure….

   Make people happy. Don’t just cause no pain. Cause happiness. Actively.

   And that idea too is complex. Make people happy – how? In any way? Do I lie to them, when truth would cause pain?

   Being a good person is really hard.   But I’ve found, probably way too late in life, that if you avoid hurting people and actively find small ways daily to make people happy – you yourself find a great deal of happiness and meaning in life.

     Now, why didn’t I figure that out sooner?


How a 16-year-old Helps to Cure Cancer –

Why and How High Schools Must Change, and Fast!

By   Shlomo Maital

            Bhavya Mohan (center)

    I am at York University, Toronto, Canada. As a part-time journalist (Jerusalem Report), I’ve interviewed many creative people whose ideas changed the world. But last evening was unique and unforgettable. Because I spoke with Bhavya Mohan, an incredible 16-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, going into Grade 11, who made a breakthrough discovery for treatment of cancer. It won him first prize in Canada’s high school science project competition. He will head to Bulgaria in the Fall to represent Canada at a European science fair contest.

     Bhavya’s project was called “Taking ABiTE out of Cancer: A Novel Aptamer based BiTE for Cancer Immunotherapy”. I’ll try my best to explain it in a moment.

     Bhavya was part of a group of 19 exceptional high school students from across Canada, participating in York University Professor Andrew Maxwell’s “entrepreneurship boot camp”, which leads these young people, in teams, through the startup process, at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

    Today these amazing young people make their final ‘pitches’.  

       It’s hard to believe, but Bhavya’s breakthrough finding is real, and in his research, he really was the Principal Investigator.

       Press accounts stated: “Mohan’s project introduces a novel platform that will improve the human body’s ability to naturally detect and eliminate cancerous cells and be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies.”

     If you wish, reader, you can skip the next 500 words, my feeble effort to understand Bhavya’s scientific breakthrough.  

       Background: A relatively new approach to treating cancer is based on helping the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Cancer cells are clever and are really good at defending against the body’s killer T-cells (that kill invaders).

     For example: “Bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs) are a class of artificial bispecific monoclonal antibodies that are investigated for the use as anti-cancer drugs. They direct a host’s immune system, more specifically the T cells’ cytotoxic activity, against cancer cells.”   In other words, it’s a drug that helps bring the body’s T-cells into contact with cancer cells and kill them. Kind of like a 911 call directing police to a crime scene.

     It can be lifesaving, in treating, for instance, multiple myeloma.

       BiTE is a registered trademark of Micromet AG, a fully owned subsidiary of Amgen Inc., a leading US-based biotech company.

       BiTE treatments are, of course, super-expensive. Bhavya told me, a single dose can cost $4,000 – and you may need a lot of them. By 2030, Bhavya explained, this type of immunological treatment may create a $36 b. market.

       Side-effects: There are two problems with BiTE. One – its cost. Only for the rich. Second: its side effects. The BiTE treatment can lead to an auto-immune response, where the body’s immune system attacks the body itself, and patients die. Now, if you are dying of multiple myeloma, it’s worth the risk. But patients live in fear, while getting the treatment, that they will survive the cancer but die from the treatment. Quite terrifying.

       According to Canadian press accounts, Bhavya said:

“I’ve known quite a few cancer patients who’ve actually undergone many treatments. So I knew there was just a need for something to be done. So I wanted to go into that field,” said Mohan. “Whenever I see there’s an issue, whenever I see there’s a need for something, I always try to think of an innovative way by which I can solve those concerns.”   Inspired by meeting a cancer patient who was successfully treated for the disease but suffered dangerous side-effects, Ottawa high school student Bhavya Mohan came up with a new way to boost the body’s ability to detect and kill cancerous cells.   It could be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies, according to organizers of the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2019 in Fredericton where Mohan won Thursday for the nation’s most “inspiring and ingenious” project.

       The Breakthrough: “Aptamers (from the Latin aptus – fit, and Greek meros – part) are oligonucleotide or peptide molecules that bind to a specific target molecule.”   Bhavya’s idea: We can use aptamers (DNA strands) to bind T-cells to the cancer cells. Because of their nature, these cells do not ever cause auto-immune fatal reactions. They’re DNA!   And AbiTE works just like regular BiTE molecules. And best of all, they’re cheap. One dose, Bhavya told me, costs $60, rather than $4,000!

         (I cautioned him – Amgen is not going to be real thrilled about this. You are disrupting their bottom line!).

         Many creative ideas involve connecting things others would not think of connecting. Bhavya connected BiTE immune therapy with aptimers, X + Y. This is a common sign of a creative mind – the ability to link seemingly-unconnected things.

     So —   How in the world does a 16-year-old attain such an amazing discovery?

       Bhavya Mohan’s parents were born in India. His father was born and raised in New Delhi, and his mother, in the state of Behar. They emigrated to the US, initially, then to Canada. They work for the government, in Ottawa.

          Many of the 19 high school students in Prof. Maxwell’s program had parents who came to Canada as immigrants. Last night, in conversation, I asked them about this. They explained simply that immigrant parents have high aspirations for their kids, and hope and dream their children will fulfill careers they themselves could not. This is simply rocket fuel. I know. My parents were immigrants.          

         But make no mistake. As press accounts affirm (and I can, too): “In most ways, Bhavya Mohan is like any other 16-year-old high school kid.   He likes to spend time with friends. He plays guitar and basketball. Except when he isn’t doing those things, he’s winning science fairs and making breakthrough discoveries in cancer research.”

         How did it all start? Bhavya told me that in Grade 5, when he was only 11 (!), he reached out by email to biology professors. Most did not respond. [Would YOU respond to an 11 year old, who wanted to do research with you??]   One did — Professor William Willmore, at Ottawa’s Carleton University.   He gave Bhavya tough reading assignments – and Bhavya eventually won his spurs and became Principle Investigator in a very difficult research project.

         Kudos to Professor Willmore!

       What does the future hold? Bhavya wants to patent his findings. I urged him to read the best-selling book Patent It Yourself, so he can better guide the patent lawyers. I also recommended that he gain some financial backing, to apply for a series of patents, since single patents often can be circumvented – and Big Pharma would love nothing better, to protect their billion-dollar drugs.

           He also wants to start a drug discovery company. I cautioned him that he will need massive resources for FDA trials, and that in Pharma, big whales have been known to swallow little fish, just to keep their disruptive cheap drugs off the market.


       Last night, I asked these 19 students, how in the world did they survive high school – where teachers often feel threatened by bright students and their questions that the teachers cannot answer, or even understand, and simply shut them down?

       Some said their schools were supportive. Many simply said, they did their science projects on their own, without help or backing, often facing opposition. One brilliant young student told me her teachers insisted she should not study science, she wasn’t smart enough. That was a recurring theme. She had the resilience to defy them.   One student said he had to spend his own money to buy equipment.

       The historically-black US colleges used to have a mantra for fund-raising: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. These 19 young people’s minds have developed amazingly. But what about all those minds that have not, because of teachers who are poorly trained, badly educated, fearful of bright kids, and are hence massively destructive of their  students’ motivation and creativity?  

         What is the one thing you would change, I asked the kids, if you could, at your school? There was a strong response.   Fewer tests (especially, brain-destroying multiple choice, beloved by lazy teachers), and far more projects.

         Project based learning. Scrap the tests. Get the kids to work in teams on challenging problems. Because that is what they will do, when they become adults. So why not get them started now?

         I have been an educator for 52 years. I gave a lot of exams. I hated them. I myself learned to excel at taking exams, so I could win scholarships. That nearly ruined my creativity – it taught me to revere old knowledge, rather than challenge it and come up with new ideas.

           President George W. Bush’s first action in January 2001, after his election, was to initiate the No Child Left Behind Act. It called for extensive measurement of school quality, through standard tests.  Schools got a ‘bottom line’, just like businesses. 

      Result: throughout the US, teachers taught kids how to take tests, rather than how to cure cancer. They had to. School budgets depended on it!  Teachers hated it. The kids, even more!  Nearly 20 years later, the destruction of young minds has been MASSIVE as a result. And Bush’s failed idea spread abroad, even to my country Israel. How sad.

           When will we wake up, look at these young minds, and try to educate them as they themselves choose?  

         Not everyone is Bhavya, I know. But there are a lot more Bhavya’s out there who simply fall by the wayside.

        And it’s a terrible shame. Unforgiveable.



Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
October 2019
« Sep