Saturday, June 09, 2007

How can we attract young people to do science?

I attended a workshop-discussion sponsored by the NAST or National Academy of Science and Technology (not National Academy of Senile Teachers as one wag who is an academician herself jestingly told me!). The whole meeting was about our blog post title.

The mantra that we have heard often is that science and technology translates to more investments, economic growth and ergo, jobs. But unlike the quick fixes that our government economic planners have, science requires massive investments whose returns will not be realized in a few years. In fact the returns may be seen in a decade or so.

The problem is that while DOST (Department of Science and Technology) has invested heavily in scholarships, infrastructure development and laboratory equipment, our science seems not to have left the ground (by this I mean have generated new knowledge and technologies) save for a few notable exceptions such as the University of the Philippines institutes of physics and marine sciences. The measure of these new knowledge and technologies is on the number of scientific publications and patents.

Thus out science enterprise is at a crossroads. Obviously we have to ratchet up. The initial investment made by the DOST and the universities 20 years ago did pay. Many of the then new PhDs are now leaders in their fields in the country. Many are now at least associate professors and many more have full professor rank. But we should not be complacent. This cohort of PhDs were not followed up by a larger cohort of newer PhDs who should be assistant professors. Many of these young PhDs either have left academe and science, or do science somewhere else where they get renumerated in dollars, be it the US, Canadian, Australian, Singapore kind. Lately some have moved on to be renumerated in Euros!

The whole concept of a PhD is derived from the Catholic clergy. Recall that doctorates were first awarded by the Church to clerics. The idea is that a doctor should give life to another doctor just like a bishop ordains a priest who may become a bishop himself and give rise to more priests. This practice is still alive. A PhD should give rise to another or even more PhDs.

But without the new PhDs who would do more research and build up on the research of their mentors, no scientific advancement can be realized. This is what puts the modest Filipino enterprise in science in peril. Who will teach and train students to do research.

The participants in today's forum pointed out that this problem is not particular to the science professions but to all professions. In the Philippines it is just now that we feel the crunch in the health sciences and professions. Hospitals can't get radiologic technicians, radiologists, medical physicists, medical chemists, medical technologists etc. It is not just nurses leave for abroad or medical doctors turn into nurses but the whole gamut of health professions. As a doctor said, we are in a crisis state.

Worse is that, where are the professors that will teach these health science professions? Like their students many have gone on to greener pastures.

The same can be said in the USA, where enrollment in science degree programs are at an all time low. When I taught at Louisiana State University, the College of Basic Sciences had to undertake a massive and intensive ad campaign to attract more students to take their programs. If few students enroll then the school will get a smaller revenue in fees and will have to do away with professors' chairs.

This problem is now felt in the graduate programs. Fewer Americans pursue MSc or PhDs in science. The saving grace was international students who flocked to US universities. But with 9-11-2001 and increased security concerns, many students have decided to enroll elsewhere as getting a student visa has become harder.

In our country, some universities have made studies on the fate of their science graduates. Many are employed but not in the sciences. Many are unemployed and are trying to get to grad school (which BTW, costs money). It is very likely that our science programs are out of sync with the diversity of skills needed by industry. It was good that at the NAST meeting we had PhDs who work in pharmaceutical industry share their concerns. The continued growth of that industry is dependent on the quality and quantity of graduates that science colleges can produce.

I suppose the solution to our problem is no different to the solution to the problem that ails the whole higher education system (HES). This was pointed out by one of our national scientists. We have to solve this problem hat plagues the HES and naturally what plagues science education will be solved. It began to dawn to me that the problem is a sort of educational system AIDS!

Some schools have begun to take forward measures by redesigning programs and curricula. Dr Queena Lee-Chua of Ateneo de Manila's Math Department detailed that school's experience in instituting new programs that closely match what banks and other financial institutions require of graduates. One big casualty is that her department had to shift from a pure math focus to a more applied one. This had met resistance from more senior professors. But that how it goes. The seniors had to retool and learn applied math.

The problem of employment is what bothers science graduates in all surveys. The problem is not really getting a high salary but a decent salary. Thus we really have to ratchet up. We have to provide science jobs and this can be done by more investment in academe and science oriented business. But it seems that we are in a bind. The government while stating the mantra has not consistently followed through with action. It seems that our short term priority is again to export labour, and not to generate labour that will expand our investment and capital base.

Our almost 40 years of exporting labour is now killing us. OFW families have complained about the rapidly appreciating peso to the extent that some OFWs would want to come home. But there are few jobs in science or anything.

Now we see why science is needed in expanding the economy. Does our Big Economics PhD Chief Honcho realize that?

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