Friday, September 25, 2015

VW Scandal extrapolated to science laboratories

The automobile giant Volkswagen recently hit headlines for one of the worst scandals of all time questioning its credibility. It gives us an opportunity to probe into and reflect on ourselves.

The resignation of Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn throws the spotlight on a very grave issue frequently faced by people with responsibilities in one way or the other. When the German car giant faced the scandal of “diesel dupe”, the company admitted using  “defeat devices” in its cars that came to market between 2008 and 2015. These devices had sophisticated software installed in them that could detect when the engines are being tested and modify their performance accordingly during the test. The controlled laboratory conditions during a test triggered this device to make engines perform below normal power to reduce the rate of exhaust gases. But, when out on roads, these cars emitted as high as forty times the emission rate allowed by Environmental Protection Agency.  The result? While the world’s second biggest car maker company reigned the automobile markets over the past seven years with its so-called competently performing cars, in fact, it was adding a lion share to environmental pollution. It now faces a deadly economic loss of more than $7bn to cover the scandal and another nearly $18bn as penalty. Losing goodwill, the shares of the company plummeted by 30% in the last two days with stocks still plunging.

When the scandal initially hit media and public discussion platforms, there were speculations on the credibility of an enterprise known for its authenticity, genuineness and unparalleled technology for decades. Taking vicarious responsibility, the CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned from his position. Whether he spearheaded the “defeat device” idea or passively approved such a motion or was totally unaware of the whole plan is still sketchy. But the answer is crystal clear. If he was actively involved in the plan, then he is culpable for the dirty treacherous game that cheated millions of VW customers world wide. But if he was not at all involved in this plan, it questions his efficiency as the executive of the company whose activities he is unaware of. Either way, the vicarious liability on him is huge and the payment he had to make for that too is huge.

Science is never a one-man show. There is teamwork involved in every step of the journey. The question is how do we trust the credibility of our team. The key is, if in the game, be at the top of it. Bring out our best performance and team skills to win the game. As a team member, it’s not necessary that we should always be the most active members of the venture undertaken by the team. But, we should always be aware of even the minute details of work undertaken by each member of the team. This ensures quality of work. But more importantly, it ensures that no member of the team goes against the collective interest of the team. Many incidents in the past have shown us that the lack of awareness about the activities of each component of the team has resulted in huge penalties. Losing jobs to controversial suicides, losing credibility of work to complete prohibition from the scientific field and trust issues between team members. The penalties are in fact immense.

Another interesting lesson we can learn form the VW scandal is that, how much ever trust we have gained through sheer quality in the past, how much ever sophisticated the forgery is, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Truth definitely wins finally. 

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