BONG  OSORIO:  THE SCIENCE OF ECONOMIC TAKEOFF

MANILA, August 23, 2005
 (STAR) COMMONNESS By Bong R. Osorio - In her last State of the Nation address, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo observed that the Philippines is a nation mired in political wranglings on the one hand, and was a nation that is poised for economic takeoff, on the other. The image of the Philippines being able to revive its moribund economy and compete with other countries in the region is a heady one.

There are important premises that need to be ascertained before such a takeoff is possible, however. It assumes a robust economy arising from an equally robust industrial infrastructure. The underpinnings of industry include technical know-how and competence.

The seedbed for technical competence would be our academic and research institutions. In a report he filed in 2003, Dr. Caesar Saloma, director of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Physics (NIP), points out that the number of PhD degree holders in physics as of April 2003 was less than 70 (there are less than 80 in 2005). Literally, they are one-in-a-million.

Blame it on the brain drain or the poor compensation for academics and scientists in this country, it is not surprising considering that our doctors, nurses, teachers and computer programmers have been making a beeline for jobs abroad for as long as anyone cares to remember. There is very little motivation and incentive for men and women committed to their scientific work in the country. With hardly any support from government (a cash-strapped administration would not exactly put R&D at the top of their priority list) and seriously inadequate resources, it is a wonder any of these guys have stayed behind.

Therein lies the cruel irony. We are wistfully looking at an economic salvation based on our much-touted highly competent manpower. We even export engineers, doctors, architects and scientists. Yet, within our shores, we hardly give these men and women of science a passing glance. Saloma observed that the basic salary of a UP professor is lower than the US federal minimum wage. (It is not atypical of many scientists to be attached to universities as professors, lecturers and sometimes, heads of departments.) A clerk in a federal office in Los Angeles earns more than some of the best minds that this country can offer.

This appalling situation is, unfortunately, going to remain in the foreseeable future. In the same report, Saloma pointed out that certain industries are beginning to gain a better appreciation of the "indispensable" role of science research in the long-term viability of their businesses. He cited the semiconductor industry as foremost among a few. "The high cost of conducting R&D in terms of equipment and manpower requirements leads to the conclusion that it is best carried out in universities and there is now a conscious effort on both industry and academe to interface with each other." With the reversal of fortunes among many local companies reeling from the effects of a global economic meltdown, such optimistic outlook may be in doubt now.

There is much to be said for these few brave souls whose patriotism overrides their material needs. Even as the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) does what it can to support the local scientific community, it is still the individuals that comprise it that make the difference between sustaining the high level of competence endowed upon aspiring young scientists or losing these young talents to the lure of better education and jobs abroad. With hardly a pat on the back, much less any tangible reward for their selfless dedication, they quietly go about their chores, ignored other than in the international scientific community, where many of their work have been recognized and respected.

Saloma’s work on photonics (a specialized branch of physics dealing with light) earned him the much-coveted Oscars for physics: the Galileo Galilei award, given by the International Commission for Optics. He has also recently been inducted into the Philippines’ own National Academy of Science and Technology (DOST-NAST). In spite of the many opportunities to work abroad, Saloma has chosen to stay put and look after the motley group that comprise the small community of physics academics and scientists in the country. He believes that, by staying put, he is sending out the message to his colleagues and his students that Filipinos can excel in science, despite the lack of resources and the lack of support.

Along with two other educators, Saloma will also be honored during this year’s A Tribute to Teachers, an annual convention of educators organized by the non-profit Bato Balani Foundation, which will be held at the Waterfront Hotel in Lahug City, Cebu, on Sept. 10. He joins a roster of eminent educators who have been recognized for their achievements and for leading lives marked by simplicity and humility.

Filipinos have excelled in many fields in science and technology. We’ve heard of whiz Pinoy kids who have made it to prestigious institutions in the US. Many research facilities in North America and Europe boast one or two Philippine-born staffmember. Backroom companies in Makati are even sending out their Filipino computer programmers and IT experts to troubleshoot their technology accounts in the US and elsewhere.

We are seriously undermining what few pockets of excellence we have in scientific research by inflicting upon them our benign neglect. There will be a few Dr. Salomas who will pick up the cudgels and champion the pursuit of science, but there will be at least 10 potential Salomas who will be turned off by indifference with which we treat our scholars and scientists.

This year has been declared as the International Year of Physics by the United Nations to mark the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s historic year of discoveries. There are a series of activities planned to mark the local celebrations, including lectures, physics demos, an awards program for outstanding physics teachers, and student-oriented challenge. These activities are intended to create awareness and drum up interest among students in the field of physics.

This situation is true not only for physics but for all the other fields of science. Looking at the moss-encrusted buildings that make up the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City, I notice how most of these imposing edifices seem to be sadly in need of repair and some sprucing up. High levels of humidity have streaked the once-bright paint colors of their facades with moss and encrustations; the halls and corridors are poorly lit by flickering fluorescent lamps. There is a feeling of resignation here, of having given up in the battle against the elements and against forces beyond the campus.

Our government may not have the funds to refurbish these buildings, much less fund research projects. The private sector can do its share in supporting Filipino scientists. Manny Pacquiao probably gets more support and encouragement from his kababayan than all the Filipino scientists and scholars combined. Even a pat on the back would go a long way towards reassuring them our support. Programs that recognize their commitment, like A Tribute to Teachers can boost their morale and prod them to push ahead with their research work, no matter the odds.

Ultimately, it will be the likes of Dr. Saloma who will develop the technology infrastructure and innovate new ideas that will result in Filipino products and services that will be the envy of the world. This will, in turn, be the key towards an economic takeoff, which we so ardently wish and dream for.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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