Prospects of S&T under Du30: What is to be done?

By Nikolai Tubog

The role of science and technology (S&T) in society is one that is often understated; S&T, however, is nonetheless pivotal for any nation’s advancement. Science has led to the utilization of nature, which in turn has led to the production of technologies which have vastly elevated the standard quality of life. Eventually, S&T also sparked the establishment of profitable industries, jumpstarting industrialization and allowing societies to further benefit from the resources around them.

Or at least that’s how it goes in theory.

In practice, only a handful of countries have managed to attain wide-scale industrialization: Other countries — the Philippines included — have yet to follow suit. One would expect a country as rich in natural resources as ours to be at the forefront of industrialization; this is unfortunately not the case.

The Current State of Affairs

The past few years have not exactly gone swimmingly for the S&T scene in the Philippines. Although projects such as DIWATA-1 and NOAH have triumphantly demonstrated the capabilities of the Filipino scientist and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), problems in funding, S&T education, and the treatment of workers have severely impeded the growth of S&T in the country. In addition, the few projects which do end up reaching completion have been criticized for doing little to alleviate the socioeconomic conditions plaguing the nation.

One of the main problems faced by the S&T sector is insufficient financial support. Funding for research and development (R&D) has historically been abysmal. The World Bank’s survey of GDP allocation per country in 2009 revealed that R&D only receives 0.11% of the Philippines’ GDP; to put things into perspective, the same survey found that R&D is given 1.13% of the GDP in Malaysia and 2.16% in Singapore — values which are part of steadily increasing progressions in their respective countries, compared to the Philippines’ irregular trend. Past surveys also found that funding for R&D in the Philippines peaked at 0.14% of the GDP in 2002 and has therefore yet to break the 1% barrier.

The dismal treatment of S&T workers — scientists and engineers — is another hurdle obstructing the progress of the sector. Take for example the recent scandal involving the DIWATA-1 project: Although the venture was a success and was widely deemed to be an exciting foray into astronautics, the engineers behind the project have spoken out against the DOST for allegedly withholding compensation, pressuring them into restrictive contracts, and rushing them to complete what is supposed to be a three-year project within one year.

This type of mistreatment is not novel. Contractualization has tormented the Filipino S&T worker for as long as he has existed, thrusting him into what is essentially a life of poverty, working from project to project without any guarantee of job security — or any security for that matter: Justice has yet to be served for the deaths of ethnobotanist Leonard Co and Engr. Delle Salvador, two S&T workers unjustly killed while conducting fieldwork.

Taking these problems into consideration, it becomes clear that the life of an S&T worker in the Philippines is neither as lucrative nor picturesque as what biographies of Jose Rizal would lead one to believe; rather, it is a life marred by the inefficiencies of bureaucracy and the negligence of the government. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Philippines is currently experiencing an exodus of its greatest minds in search of greener pastures.

In addition to stemming brain drain, there is also an urgent need to produce new S&T workers via S&T education — another area unsurprisingly beset by a lack of resources and concrete action. Statistics published by the Advocates of Science & Technology for the People (AGHAM) found that on average, there exist 1,325 students for every science lab across the country. Also of note are the lack of credible reference materials, decent infrastructure, and staff — a problem which can also be traced to brain drain. This naturally leads to a dearth of students pursuing degrees leading to work in S&T. The same study found that less than 1% of high school graduates continue on to take STEM courses after high school.

If these trends are to continue, the S&T sector may soon stagnate, blocking any significant progress and potentially incapacitating one of the most important sectors of the country. A deactivated S&T sector brings with it a host of problems, seeing as every industry benefits — directly or indirectly — from the innovations brought about by S&T.

New Administration, New Possibilities?

As a new administration prepares to take the country’s reins, another chance for the rejuvenation of S&T and the reestablishment of its role in nation-building is slowly looking to become a possibility.

In spite of this opportunity, however, there has been a relative lack of statements from President Rodrigo R. Duterte regarding S&T, compared to his consistent statements on crime and corruption. Excepting a vague draft outlining his plans to improve the sector, or misguided statements about removing certain STEM subjects from curricula, it seems that Duterte has put S&T on the back-burner, choosing to focus on the more conspicuous issues he stressed in his platform.

In his State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte did mention though several issues tangentially related to S&T. He recognized the need to address global warming, but noted that doing so “must not stifle our industrialization”, referring to his refusal to honor the country’s pact with the United Nations (UN) to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. He also defended his contentious appointment of Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez as Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, stating that “the interest of the country must come first”. His stand appears contradictory, especially given the inherent link between mining — which Lopez seems to have a personal vendetta against — and the establishment of the most prominent heavy industries, which include steel, electronics, and machinery. The remainder of the SONA was disappointingly devoid of any direct mention of the S&T sector.

Given the absence of S&T from the SONA and other campaign-related pronouncements, further examination of the Duterte administration’s blueprints for the sector therefore hinges on the draft released by the administration, along with an overview of the new DOST, headed by UP Diliman’s Fortunato “Boy” Dela Peña.

From Grandiose to Practical: Montejo vs Dela Peña

Whereas the Montejo-led DOST spearheaded the development of landmark projects such as DIWATA-1 and the UP Monorail, Dela Peña is gearing up to take a more hands-on approach to S&T, bringing its fruits “more directly to the masses”. He plans to achieve this through prioritizing practicality in research and development, focusing on projects which can potentially improve quality of life. This is in stark contrast to Montejo’s focus on costly, ambitious undertakings which may have tended to net the country more prestige, but have been criticized for coming short of addressing its needs.

To aid in the usage of S&T as a tool for development, Dela Peña plans to lend the DOST’s services to other departments, aiding other sectors such as those governing food, health, education, and agriculture. By allowing S&T to permeate through as many industries as possible, Dela Peña hopes to highlight the importance of S&T in improving quality of life. A collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, for example, is currently in talks, citing plans to improve irrigation systems with data from ongoing geohazard mapping.

Nevertheless, the new DOST also plans to further develop and enhance projects kicked off by its predecessors. Support for disaster-mitigation system Project NOAH, for example, is to be improved by merging data from the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS) with that from other universities and institutes, allowing for cross-checking and the production of more accurate forecasts. Ongoing research in established fields, such as genomics and physiology, is not expected to slow down at any rate, but Dela Peña states that research focus will be redirected more towards projects which will directly benefit people, such as the production of hardier, healthier genetically-modified crops, and research on the potential medicinal properties of indigenous plant life. Dela Peña is also looking to continue Montejo’s work in establishing physical S&T development centers across regions, prioritizing countryside development over the current NCR-centralized scheme — a scheme which has, for the most part, hindered S&T development opportunities in rural and non-Luzon areas.

Dela Peña envisions a DOST which, by the end of his term, has successfully ingrained the widespread utilization of S&T within public and private sectors, both in local and national scales. In time, such a set-up is expected to be self-sufficient enough to eventually allow the DOST to focus on projects the scale of those headed by its predecessors — all without the apparent neglect towards the country’s demands.

The Duterte Administration: S&T’s Saving Grace?

Meanwhile, in a draft of his administration’s agenda for the improvement of the sector, Duterte stresses the importance of prioritizing S&T in order to ignite industrialization. His proposal to resuscitate the industry relies on two main points: Strengthening regional R&D and establishing a series of strategic projects encompassing several adjunct sectors.

The administration aims to provide additional S&T funding to non-NCR regions as well as to the DOST’s sectoral planning councils to promote the usage of R&D in answering local problems, while working with local universities. Several programs addressing the need for renewable energy, industrial development, efficient internet, increased food production, and climate change adaptation are also said to be in the works, although the specifics of these have yet to be detailed.

The Duterte administration expects ingenuity and inventiveness to be common themes running through S&T during its term. Duterte hopes to establish a culture of innovation, citing past successes the likes of Sustainable Alternative Light’s (SALt) saltwater lamp and H2O Technologies’ salamander tricycle as inspiration. The administration also aims to improve the S&T sector until it can eventually compete with its neighbouring countries.

These objectives, though realistically attainable, are nonetheless hindered by the aforementioned problems in S&T, especially the problems with funding and brain drain. In a bid to address these, the administration plans to provide research grants to more scientists and to incentivize local research, primarily through the Balik Scientist Program and similar retention programs.

Though worryingly scarce in detail, all of these plans, if successfully implemented, may finally address the mass perception of S&T being too ‘out there’ and not being relevant in the life of the layfolk. The focus on regional development and collaboration with other industries hints that the administration at least understands the importance of considering the Philippine context in determining the path of S&T, instead of adhering to the same formulae used by the industrialized superpowers.

The new administration has yet to release details on how to improve the quality of S&T education, especially in line with the recent nationwide implementation of K-12. There is also a concerning lack of statements about the mistreatment of S&T workers. Whether or not these will be addressed can potentially make or break the administration’s hopes to revive the sector under its rule. While the premise of additional financial support is definitely a boon to S&T, funding can only go so far as long as S&T and R&D are belittled and their joint relevance in society is downplayed.

Egging Duterte on

As students of the College of Science, we are privileged to be near the forefront of the Philippine S&T scene. This position comes both as a right and a responsibility. As Filipino citizens, we have the right to be aware of the current state of affairs in S&T, including its implications on both the immediate and long-term future. However, as future S&T workers, we are tasked to remain vigilant and to constantly critique any and all plans and policies put forth by the current and succeeding administrations.

Sustainability and an inclination to industrialization are what the local S&T sector requires if it is expected to power industries which can improve the lives of the people. Before any improvements can be attempted, however, it is essential to right any preexisting wrongs with the system. As future vanguards of Philippine S&T, we must act in remedying the S&T situation in the country — with or without the administration.

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