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Merienda with a Nobel Laureate

Professor Torsten Wiesel 1981 Nobel Laurate in Medicine for his work on how the retinal cells in the eyes receive light and how the brain conjures an image, is now in town for a series of visits to our research universities. He was in DLSU earlier and proceeded to UP Diliman. He will visit other universities in his tour of the country.

Over merienda at the Board of Regents (BOR) room at Quezon Hall, UP administrators briefed the professor about the University’s plans to further push forward our scientific development. Prof Wiesel is no stranger to the problems and pitfalls administrators face, for after receiving the Nobel, he became president of the Rockefeller University. Upon stepping down from this post, he assumed leadership of the Human Frontier Science Program which promotes and funds interdisciplinary collaboration between the sciences and helps train postdoctoral scientists.

Professor Wiesel in these various engagements, advises government research bureaucracies on how they can make their science become more globally competitive.

I was in the meeting at the BOR room and Prof Wiesel struck me as your Hollywood stereotype of the kind professor, and not of the Einstein type but not of the Tuesdays with Morrie kind either. [BTW Einstein was regarded by students as hard to deal with and thus he only successfully graduated one PhD]

The sharp as a tack 85 year old prof commented on one of the powepoint presentations of the administrators. He remarked “A blue background is sure to put your students to sleep!” Well we take that as a very expert assessment from one who won a Nobel on describing how eyes can really see!

But beyond that he was concerned about problems (much related to our bureaucratic culture) on how science is administered. The prof knows that while science especially in the 21st century is given much attention by those who hold the government purse, it can never be THE PRIORITY for funding over social services and other issues that can deliver the votes. The professor was confused with appellations of putting the word “national” on our academic and research institutions. For instance the UP is the National university. The professor understands that in other countries such as in Singapore, a national university is assured of the money and it is expected to deliver. He was perplexed at first to learn that UP while national, is not assured of getting the money.

He also had some observations on why UP and other universities have a lot of graduate students but graduate just a few of them. This is a waste of resources. His suggestion is to make the admission of grad students more competitive. I believe the prof saw the problem clearly. Getting into a UP grad program is infinitely easier as compared to getting into an undergraduate program.

The problem is so evident in the UP PhD programs which in the sciences manages to graduate only 13 a year. In other universities of good reputation such as DLSU, Ateneo or UST, it is usual that 1 or 2 or at most 5 PhDs are produced. In contrast as the prof says eminent research universities graduate 50 or more PhDs. This is true. When I got my degree in Australia, we were 30 PhDs in the class and my university was much smaller than the more eminent Sydney and Melbourne.

Of course there are a lot of reasons some of which are particular to the Pinoy why many can’t get through the grad program. But all of these reasons are solvable. Dean Caesar Saloma of the science college says its the lack of mentors and these mentors should be scientists who do publish. Indeed we need to develop more of this science culture.

There were lots of issues that were brought up to Prof Wiesel and at the end he seemed like a father-confessor! One of the senior academics from UP Manila said he was like the Pope! Perhaps the comparison is apt for Papa Ratzinger is known to listen, give sharp pointed advice and crack an academic joke (which mere mortals are won’t to get!) I won’t dwell on these issues like academic “inbreeding” since it’s for academe and for most readers this may not be relevant.

One issue that should interest readers is how universities can really serve as S&T incubators and in the end contribute much to the national economy. The prof has had lots of experience (as Rockefeller U prez) in getting these tech start ups up and running. He says that the university linked S&T incubators in China contribute about 2 billion USD to the economy. And when these technologies go mainstream, the returns are geometric. The UP and to some extent Ateneo and DLSU envision that their schools will be catalysts for this kind of enterprise. UP has started in its technohub venture with Ayala but the promise is still to be seen. So far everybody knows it is a BPO hub.

Prof Wiesel advices Pinoy academics that these S&T incubators will only deliver its promise if the academics themselves adopt a more daring interdisciplinary view of things. This would imply a major shake up of how university bureaucracies are run which at present promotes departmental isolation. He suggests that academic departments and even the various UP campuses be daring enough to set up shop at the technohub (which should facilitate departments to collaboratively how to hatch projects). He gives the example of UP Manila’s health sciences research units. Medicine should not limit itself to clinical research but look into the potential of basic science research which can be incubated as new medical technologies. The best place to do that is in UP Diliman’s technohub since UP Diliman is strong in the basic natural sciences like physics, chem, biology and environment.

Professor Wiesel advises Pinoy academia and science bureaucrats to promote “Brain circulation” and not just ‘brain gain”!

At the end of the merienda I was convinced that this Nobel laureate who did ground breaking studies in vision has vision.

But the prof knows all about the upcoming election and he hopes that the new prez will be a science president.

BTW, the chismis is that one of the professor’s hosts in the Philippines is a presidentiable who has a shot at winning the Palace. However it immediately dawned to us that the prof isn’t seeing yellow! :-)


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