Saturday, July 03, 2010

Angelo Palmones on the State of Philippine Science

Mr Angelo Palmones, a nationally known broadcaster, was elected as representative for AGHAM, the party that advocates scientific issues. He was on ANC last night discussing the direction of S & T in the Aquino presidency.

Listening to Rep Palmones on ANC, I could not help but note that it seems he did not get much input from the Filipino professional science community on what direction should Philippine science programs focus. While it is unarguable that much of the problems of Philippine science development lies on the poor state of basic education, that is just one end of the problem.

The success and utility of basic science education lies on top of successes in 1) Literacy, 2) Numeracy, 3) Comprehension in basic education. Science cannot be taught effectively if children do not acquire these skills in the early grades (plus of course encouraging independent and curiosity driven thinking). Here is where the importance of teaching these skills in the first language comes in. And in the Philippines, that cannot be English. But I will not dwell on the language issue. That is for another time.

The other end of the problem is not just lack of scientific infrastructure (that is also important) but more on the direction and priorities of Philippine science development. The operating word here "development". What kind of development should the Philippines invest in?

This is an important question that developing countries which aim to join the ranks of developed countries should answer. Developing countries and most especially those at near-developed status (as ex Prez Gloria Macapagal Arroyo famously said it!) should carefully identify which priorities must be given scientific investment in time, infrastructure and human resources. For example, Brazil in the 1950s clearly identified aerospace science and technology as a priority. The investment only saw its results in the 1970s with the first Embraer aircraft. Embraer aircraft only made it well in the late 1980s when it finally broke into the international aircraft market dominated by Boeing and Airbus. However right from the start Brazil identified that it makes no sense to compete with American Boeing and European Airbus in the wide body plane market. Thus in the early 21st century, Embraer is the biggest manufacturer of narrow bodied jets, counting among its customers American and European budget airlines. Brazil went to making jets because of national security needs. But it hit the civilian jackpot.

Palmones seems to have an inkling of that by suggesting that the Philippines focus on biotechnology given the biodiversity and genetic resources the country has. However that would involve legal complications as we all know, the past Philippine Congresses have legislated many stringent laws on bioprospecting. These laws make it quite unattractive for business to invest much money on bioprospecting and biotechnology. If Palmones wants to file a bill in the House (which he plans to do so on Monday), he should have provisions to answer these legal difficulties.

Perhaps Representative Palmones can look into the possibility that the Philippines follow the Mexican model in science development. The Philippines shares with Mexico many similarities such as a Hispanic history, close ties with the United States, unique biodiversity resources, a large and well educated professional class, inequitable access to wealth generating opportunities, budget deficits and even with closer economic ties with the US and migrant worker remittances, poverty.

A 2005 study on Mexico's science infrastructure and human resources was published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Using bibliometric methods, the state of Mexico's science program was assessed. It is worth noting that science investment only becomes evident with the number of science articles published in peer reviewed journals. The researchers identified four Mexican science competencies 1) Biomedical sciences, 2) Physics/Math, 3) Chemistry and 4) Environmental science.

The results shed light on whether Mexico's accelerated science investment in the last 20 years has paid off and gives the Mexican government basis for deciding which field to invest in and which field not to invest in. The Third World Academy of Science has reviewed Mexico's investment in science in a report. In Mexico's case, even if it produces 2000 PhDs a year, it cannot provide employment for half of them, leading the Mexican Congress to pass a law on science and technology development. The law mandates an increase in state support and funding for science. But still science is woefully underfunded.

In Mexico and Brazil, science and technology ARE NOT MARGINAL CONCERNS. THESE ARE IMPORTANT IN REDUCING POVERTY AND SAFEGUARDING THE COUNTRY'S NATURAL PATRIMONY AND NATIONAL SECURITY. It is amazing that in the Philippines, the only way that science can get representation in Congress is through the partylist system (which was meant for marginalized sectors). The main political parties largely ignore science as part of the platform and if they don't, they just pay lip service to it.

Palmones should consider the possibility of filing a Mexican style Law on Science and Technology that mandates increasing allocation to S&T in accordance with the UN suggested proportion of GDP of 1-2%. We have had laws strengthening S&T especially on science capacity through scholarships (e.g. RA 8248) but no law committing the state to increasing allocations.

While I found Palmones' plans to give magnifying lenses to all elementary schools, this I believe is a pogi point moment. But I hope it says much about AGHAM's suggestion that we focus our science strategies.

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