Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Pinoy Scientist and Big Money

The current debate on the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) and plans for its recommissioning has placed the Pinoy scientist center stage. In many ways the debate brings the Pinoy scientist into his/her debut on the national political stage. The scientist can determine the direction of national policy and development. This is different from the past view that scientists are PhDs and as such are limited to the classrooms. The scientist is no longer a “teacher lang”. National development and strategy are no longer the exclusive domain of lawyers, economists and those pretending to be one. The scientists will play a large role in this country’s political life as their critical mass increases.

Despite her faults so often discussed here, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has to be thanked for this. Her support for the country’s scientific development is very much greater than her predecessors. She appointed as science minister a research scientist and experienced research manager who has now trouble disbursing the funds the national government has allocated. Whereas before, the DOST secretary can’t even fund research beyond the “suka and toyo” types thus the DOST was known as Department of Suka and Toyo! :-)

The Pinoy scientist is now being asked his/her opinion on many things from environment to the population issue. Since the application of national policy involves many stakeholders and big money, there is the temptation to give favourable opinions to those interests who can easily pay up. Suddenly the Pinoy science community is now talking of the morality and ethics of giving scientific expertise. And nothing shows that so clearly as the BNPP debate. We scientists show very little technical objection unless new data can show that we have basis to do so (that’s why we want a throrough reassessment) however some scientists oppose the BNPP rehab on moral and political grounds.

The scientist is not without politics. Even in Nazi Germany, eminent scientists were either bitterly opposed to the Nazi regime or in wholehearted support for Hitler and Goebbles. The truth is that on whichever side the scientist was, they contributed much to science. Those who escaped Nazi terror led the allies in crushing Hitler and Hirohito while those who chose to remain in Germany were arrested afterwards but many were de-Nazified and led the postwar reconstruction of Germany. Liberal democratic Germany was restored as the leasing science power in Europe. Nonetheless Nazi sponsored science led the way linking the effects of tobacco smoking in lung cancer and other health issues and of course the development of space technology under von Braun, who was taken in by the Americans after 1945.

Of course our icon of Nazi “science” will always be Josef Mengele and that is why a frank discussion on ethics and morality is needed in the Pinoy science community.

As directors of national policy, scientists will have to play politics even to a much greater degree. Directors of science institutes will have to ensure that their home turfs get the cash and this has been sarcastically brought up in the whole BNPP discussion! Just like in Congress, those who fence sit won’t get a single peso!

And the big money is real. Senior scientists have told me that someone with a track record like mine can easily get grants from 80M and 100M pesos for next year. In succeeding years, it may be possible to get grants to the tune of 0.5 B pesos. The grants must be attractive to the Palace and scientists will have to tailor their science research proposals accordingly. Amazingly scientists in the Philippines don’t see the need to convince Congress that well. It may be that Congressmen are science ignorant! :-) In the US Congress, scientists will have to know their business before appearing in commitee.

This is the price we have to pay for scientific development. In the USA and the EU, scientists are experts in this dance!

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