Opinion Opinion Feature

Into the shoes of a Filipino researcher

I still remember being amazed by artificial intelligence when I was younger. Like any other child who saw amazing things in the movies, I dreamed that I too would be able to make “living metal” when I grew up. The years went by. I entered a science high school where I would continue to kindle my love for technology. From making an LED bulb light up, to writing code so arcane it seemed to come straight out of The Matrix, I kept exploring and sucking up knowledge, believing that one day I’d be able to make machines walk and think like we do. Time passed quickly. Years later I would enter college, join a research lab, and immerse myself in high-impact journals.

Eighteen years and countless dreams later, reality hits me straight in the eye.

Like all other local scientists and researchers before me, I experience the effects of having research and development treated as a non-priority industry in my own country. Being a scientist in the Philippines is hard. Facilities are hard to come by, and funding is largely non-existent. The most important factor in the success of local science, government support, is also mostly absent.

In a time when technology is paving the way for advancements in various fields, the Philippine Government needs to start taking the support of local research seriously, or else the country will continue to lag behind in terms of industrial and economical advancement.

Government-backed science has historically produced many of the comforts of life that we enjoy today. Vaccines, lasers, MRIs, and the foundations of the internet were all made possible through government funding and support. When a country’s government supports its local scientists, it paves the way for novel inventions and advancements to be produced. This, in turn, allows new industries to rise. The economy soon follows. New jobs are created. More opportunities for growth and development are made possible through advancements in science. Existing industries become more sustainable. Healthcare becomes more accessible. Long story short, if the government supports research, then life gets better for everybody. Science contributes towards nation building. It’s a no-brainer that the government should invest and support science.

However, this isn’t the case when it comes to the Philippines.

There is hardly any support for you here if you are a scientist, so little that most aspiring researchers all fly abroad in search of funding and help. This causes the country to lose some of its most precious assets, leading to “brain drain.” In fact, according to Sen. Paulo Benigno “Bam” Aquino, the country is short of 26,000 scientists. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) suggests that there should always be 380 scientists per million people in the population. In a senate hearing, it was found that we only have 189 scientists per million people—so far from the ideal number.

In truth, the very system in the country prevents and discourages scientists from pursuing their work. Procurement of equipment is hard. The current procurement system detailed by law was designed to reduce corruption and increase transparency. However, inefficiencies within the government and the procurement process itself delays the advancement of science. It is not uncommon to hear stories of researchers being sent back and forth to different government offices when applying for grants. The paperwork needed to access these funds are also very tedious. There are also issues where researchers couldn’t access equipment they ordered abroad as Customs refuse to release them.

While it is true that the current system is broken and unhelpful, it is not too late for the government to support local science.

The government should start investing in research. According to a World Bank report back in 2013, the Philippines only spends around 0.14 percent of its gross domestic product each year on research and development. While records show that the number is steadily increasing, it still remains to be below 1 percent. Local researchers are essential to nation building, and allow access to technologies that would help the Filipino embrace a better life. Fe del Mundo, for example, was able to build an incubator made out of bamboo, which was useful to rural villages that did not have access to electricity at the time. If more local scientists were given the chance to innovate, the country would not have to fully rely on expensive foreign technologies, thereby reducing the cost and making such technologies more accessible to the common Filipino. On top of this, novel inventions and technologies would pave the way for new industries to be formed. This leads to more jobs and a better, more self-sustainable nationalistic economy.

The recent passing of the “Balik Scientist” bill into law sparks hope that government support for science will be much better in the near future. The law, which supports researchers who gain experience outside of the country by giving incentives for coming back, is a good first step in enticing the brains of the population to return and serve the nation. While efforts are being done to make our scientists come home, efforts must also be done to prevent them from leaving in the first place. We, as citizens, should do all we can in order to lobby for better support of the sciences. If we do not urge the government to stop treating research and development as a second-rate industry in the Philippines, we cannot fully benefit from the local scientists who choose to stay and their innovative ideas that could potentially change the lives of every Filipino for the better.

Without science, we cannot fully advance as a nation.

Blaise Cruz

By Blaise Cruz

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