Duterte’s S&T Chief bares plans, priorities; reactors, stakeholders pose serious issues

By Paul Christian Yang-ed

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary Fortunato dela Peña revealed his plans for the lead government science and technology agency in a forum with STS students, reactors, and stakeholders held at the CS Auditorium on September 19.

Dela Peña identified three particular challenges for the DOST in the next six years. He said that services for standards testing in the country remains lacking, as manifested with the still incomplete and sole National Metrology Laboratory in Taguig. Operation and design of industries rely on measurements and standards such as length, weight, viscosity, and materials’ stress tolerance, making it crucial for the country to invest in upgrading its National Metrology Laboratory. However, setting up a satisfactory metrology laboratory is expensive as the country doesn’t make its own measuring equipment and merely imports them from abroad.

He also identified the completion of Doppler Radar Stations and Flood Forecasting Stations across the country as another challenge, as well as the setting up of Tsunami Detection and Alerting Stations. The Doppler Radar Stations are set to be completed in 2017, about a decade after the Arroyo administration started embarking on this project. Problems and controversies related to funding dragged down the construction of the Doppler Radar Towers through the years. Once completed, these towers would aid weather forecasters and disaster management as a whole.

He also mentioned that although two new regional campuses of the Philippine Science High School System (PSHSS) just opened in Romblon and Zamboanga, establishing a campus in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) remains a challenge. He told the audience that Pres. Duterte approves of his plan for a PSHS campus to rise in that region. A PSHS campus in ARMM would make a PSHS exist in all regions, as envisioned in the science school’s charter.

The secretary also brought up novel plans regarding the expansion of S&T facilities and services in the regions, a key objective of his administration. He said that the DOST plans to set up a Technetium-99 Production Facility to reduce the country’s reliance on Indonesia for the said isotope. Hospitals use Technetium-99. He also talked about establishing an Advanced Device and Materials Testing Laboratory so that local small electronics and semiconductor enterpreneurs need not go abroad anymore to test their products. Developing regional packaging centers for food manufacturers in the provinces will continue. DOST plans more innovation support for Micro, Small, and Medium, Enterprises (MSMEs) in the regions such as those engaged in food processing, furniture and handicrafts manufacturing, as well as in agriculture, mariculture, and aquaculture.

He also mentioned many specific projects for the DOST falling under the categories of Health, Agriculture, Industry, Climate Change Adaptation, and finished products and projects for “technology transfer”. He also expressed support moves in Congress to establish a “Philippine Space Agency”, as no centralized agency focuses on the recently-launched DIWATA microsatellite. The Philippines’ neighbors in Southeast Asia long formed their own space agencies as they established their space satellite programs.

In the forum that followed, CS Student Councilor Jelaine Gan asked the secretary about the status of the UP Monorail. The secretary replied that the UP Diliman Campus Administration raised an objection, and if the problem with the administration will not get settled, they will remove the structure. He also added that agencies involved in projects must properly arrange and sign mutually-agreeable terms so that people’s funds used for the projects will not get wasted.

Reactors also raised important issues that the Duterte administration needs to address. Carlo Arcilla, a professor from the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS), asked the secretary concerning the hiring of many foreign consultants in government projects even though Filipino professionals based in the College of Science can do or even exceed what these foreigners would do. He cited a flood control project which employed a consultant from the World Bank, even though NIGS already has more competent personnel. Dela Peña replied that since foreign banks fund the projects that Dr. Arcilla mentioned, it follows naturally that among the conditions attached with the “Official Development Assistance” these banks will loan to the country requires the hiring of their personnel as consultants.

In his turn, Warner Carag, an MS Geology student and a DOST scholar since high school, raised the issue of brain drain. The secretary admitted that the DOST cannot solve brain drain. He admitted that the DOST’s measures remain limited to Return Service Agreements. He said that they can’t also influence the salary level of the country’s scientists. He also said in reply that they have no control over the scientists’ mobility.

Benjamin Vallejo of the Science and Society Program (SSP) noted the presence of continuity in the DOST’s projects. He also emphasized the need for S&T to become at the forefront of and center to the agencies responsible for managing the economy such as the Department of Finance (DOF) and National Economic Development Authority (NEDA). He also asked the audience to decide which between financial speculation (the current set-up) or S&T-driven innovation should drive the national economy in the years to come.

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