To be a Pinoy scientist

Published May 14, 2021, 5:00 AM

by Manila Bulletin

How many scientists does a country need?

By Aaron Villaraza

TEACHING THE YOUTH The author receiving a certificate of recognition for a training workshop on Internationalization for international relations officers (INROs) at the University of the Philippines Los Baños in 2019

Some five years ago, I was invited to speak at a forum organized by the Department of Science and Technology, together with other young scientists who, like myself, had decided to return to the Philippines. The audience was made up of university students who were DOST scholars, and the purpose of the forum was to inspire these young, impressionable minds to enter into science-related careers.

The event had a distinctly “Miss Universe” feel: The speakers before me went on stage to divulge all their scientific accomplishments, and when asked the question “Why did you return?” they invariably said, “To serve my home country… the Philippines!” This was routinely followed by a rapturous applause. Eventually my turn came and when I was asked the same question, I replied “I needed a job…” I didn’t get the same applause. Perhaps the audience (or even the organizers) did not expect me to be quite so honest.

This event, together with others of similar purpose, inspired me to think about the public perception of scientists in the Philippines. This is particularly relevant now, in light of recent events, both local and worldwide, which have brought scientists to the limelight. What role exactly do they play in society?

Whenever I mingle in non-scientific circles, it is always a struggle to explain myself when introduced to friends of friends. For instance, whenever people hear I am a chemist, the usual question I get is “So, do you use a lot of test tubes?” I laugh inside, because I never use them, and I haven’t touched one in ages. More thought-provoking was when, at a business reception, I was introduced to a young entrepreneur who, hearing a summary of my CV, asked “How can your employer afford you?” I was amused by the question, because I had never thought of myself or my scientific training as a commodity. And I reject the idea.

INNOVATION AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS Professor Emeritus Grace Alfonso of the UP Open University and the author, who was at the time the deputy director of the UP Office of International Linkages, welcome heads of the Southern Taiwan Universities Network delegation president Jhing-Fa Wang of Tajen University and University chair professor Eing-Ming Wu of Shu-Te, at Quezon Hall, UP Diliman on July 4, 2017 (Photo by Jun Madrid, UP MPRO)

Allow me to briefly describe my own scientific training, not for beauty-pageant purposes, but simply because it is illustrative of the typical educational path taken by many other young Filipino scientists in the country. I completed an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, which was followed by a PhD abroad at some first world country. Immediately, after I did a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in some other first world country, before deciding to return home and start an academic career. After around two years, however, it became necessary to leave yet again for another postdoc in order to jumpstart my research, by collaborating with another lab based in yet another first world country. Since 2013, I have been based fully in the Philippines, working on research projects funded by various government agencies, while continuing to collaborate with other academic laboratories abroad. I manage to participate in one local and one international conference annually, and have published several Scopus-listed papers to date. In the international scientific scene, these accomplishments are modest, but given our antiquated government procurement law and its implementation, it is no surprise.

The reader might wonder why I have not mentioned anything at this point about teaching. After all, isn’t the role of a professor to teach? Whenever classes are suspended due to a typhoon, I am always asked the same question ad nauseam: “Oh what are you going to do today since classes have been suspended?” The premise behind the question is the assumption that a professor’s work is 100 percent teaching, and hence when classes are suspended, I have nothing to do. This question used to irritate me deeply, but in time I realized that it originates from the common tao’s college experience: As an undergraduate, the student’s only contact with the professor is in the classroom; hence, the impression a student develops is that the only job of the professor is to teach, give exams, check papers, and report grades. So when I explain that teaching occupies only 20 to 25 percent of my time, my listeners either get confused, or the more malicious of them assume I am just plain lazy.

To help people understand better what it is I do exactly, perhaps the first thing to clarify is the concept of a “university education,” which is still evolving. There are other places where one can read up on the conceptual history of “the University,” so I will limit myself to a brief summary of university education in the Philippines over the last 100 years or so, or at least how I appreciate the facts. When the Americans took over from the Spaniards at the end of the 19th century, part of the colonization effort was to establish a public university education system (previously under Spain, universities were private institutions supported by tuition fees), which would provide an education to Filipinos in order to work toward the cliché of “nation-building.” This was part of a mass education phenomenon, which included the American Thomasites coming over to the Philippines, and the Filipino pensionados who went to the US on scholarship to obtain higher degrees. The strategy was to educate Filipino teachers, healthcare workers, and lawyers/legislators, and by doing so make them love “America.” The ethos of this colonial policy survives to this day, already more than 50 years after independence. In today’s parlance, this is referred to as the exercise of “soft power.” Undoubtedly in the first half of the 20th century, this system produced the country’s leaders in industry, politics, medicine, etc. Hence, the public understanding which correlated personal success with a “college degree” increased and solidified. To this day, parents continue to advise their children that if they want to become successful in life, they need to “go to college.”

VALUABLE FILIPINO SCIENTISTS The author (second from the right) conferred the Outstanding Young Scientist (OYS) Award, given by the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines in acknowledging significant contributions of young scientists last 2016

The value of the university diploma can be reduced to a stamp signifying a certain level of professional training, therefore a guarantee of a substantial income, and hence a ticket out of poverty.   

Common language in the Philippines betrays the confusion between the specific functions of a “college” and a “university,” as the two words are used interchangeably. In many first world countries the distinction between “college” and “university” is clear both on paper and in common understanding. For instance, in the US, it is clear that the function of a “college” is principally to teach students, and by providing knowledge and skills to its students it helps create a competent workforce for the nation. That’s important. There are, however, other institutions where such an education can be obtained. In Germany, for example, voc-tech educational institutions are of such high quality that the country’s manufacturing industry is a top-contributor to the global economy. Hence, a German national need not “go to college” (as understood in the Philippine sense) in order to have a successful professional career.

In comparison, a “university” provides an education that is more holistic, as it exists for less pragmatic reasons. All sorts of “useless” subjects are taught, like the humanities and higher-level math. Furthermore, the university is a venue where higher-level enquiry takes place: this is called “research,” which may (or may not) result in “innovation.” Such inquiry happens in the form of medieval-style apprenticeship, where the experienced professor trains the incoming generations of students how to ask the right sort of questions in order to push the boundaries of knowledge further. The university setup is ideal, therefore, for cultural and scientific preservation, transmission, and innovation that contribute to a national identity. Such activities may even translate, though not exclusively nor necessarily, into national economic growth. Hence, it is in the public interest that a country has top-quality universities.

Allow me a few words regarding my own alma mater, the University of the Philippines. Republic Act 9500 was signed into law back in 2008, which redefined UP as a “Research University.” Since then, “research” has become a major occupation of the university, and research productivity is now appropriately awarded with financial incentives and has become a significant criterion for promotion. Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of fruitful and useful research conducted by UP, which has made an impact on the lives of Filipinos.

DREAM FOR THE BEST Dr. Enrico C. Paringit, Disaster Risk and Exposure Assessment for Mitigation (DREAM) Program leader, expounded to the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) officers from the five island provinces of MIMAROPA about the LiDar technology and other geospatial technologies (Photo from DOST-MIMAROPA)

For instance, research conducted by the Marine Science Institute in Diliman on the Red Tide has led to the understanding of the biology of such harmful algal blooms, and the data has been used to craft public policy, which has significantly reduced the number of cases of associated poisoning. Research conducted by the College of Engineering in Diliman in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) has led to the establishment of the LiDAR Program, which provides accurate topographic flood and hazard maps for use in disasters such as typhoons. Hence, LGUs can respond to such crises in an informed manner.

The latest statistics from the World Bank shows that while the US has 4,256 researchers per million population, 4,377 in the UK, and 6,730 in nearby Singapore, the Philippines has a mere 188.

The College of Medicine in Manila worked toward the crafting and implementation of the Newborn Screening Act (RA 9288), through which millions of Filipino babies have since been screened for genetic and metabolic disorders which, if otherwise undetected and left untreated, would lead to mental retardation or death.

There are just a few examples of the many ways the work of local scientists continues to have an impact on the lives of Filipinos.

Perhaps the readers of this article would like to know just how many scientists are needed in a country. The latest statistics from the World Bank shows that while the US has 4,256 researchers per million population, 4,377 in the UK, and 6,730 in nearby Singapore, the Philippines has a mere 188.

I will let these numbers speak for themselves.

Dr. Aaron Joseph L. Villaraza obtained his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Manchester. He is currently a professor at the Institute of Chemistry at UP Diliman. He does research on the venoms of Philippine marine snails.