National Academy of Science and Technology: An award and a duty

In any area of specialization, the identities and significant works of stand-out experts often become embedded into the pages of history, from names of theories and names of species to titles like “Father of Modern Genetics”. Various awards also duly recognize such excellence—the Nobel Prize and the Royal Medal, for instance, come to mind.

One of the most esteemed distinctions that can be presented to Filipino researchers is that of the National Scientist, recognizing eminent achievements in the sciences and social sciences. The latest awardee Dr. Emil Javier—plant geneticist, agronomist, and former President of the University of the Philippines System—was honored last August.

Under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) is the governing body responsible for conferring the distinction. Functioning as the highest recognition and advisory board of the Philippines, NAST was created through Presidential Decree 1003-A on December 17, 1976.

Explaining the framework

In its inception, NAST initially served two main functions: to extend recognition to outstanding Filipino scientists and to offer advice to the government. The first function, according to incumbent NAST Vice President Dr. Fabian Dayrit, gave rise to two distinguished titles—specifically, the Academicians and the National Scientists.

Membership is further classified into six divisions, based on the inducted scientists’ expertise in the disciplines of Agriculture, Biological Sciences, Engineering, Health Sciences, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and Social Sciences.

Dayrit shares that there are currently 72 slots for living Academicians, “[This] is relatively small if you compare it to [other] Academies that have a few hundred [members].” When a slot opens up, a nominated scientist must earn a vote of approval from every current member of the Academy.

“Everyone has to vote whether they accept this person, even though they’re not [from the same division]. You have to convince people that [you deserve this slot slot],” Dayrit discusses that becoming an Academician is as much about “intellectual leadership” capabilities as it is about scholarly accomplishments. “You’re not just good in the field, but people perceive you as being a good leader for the entire scientific community.”

Moreover, there are no explicit and standardized rules for electing Academicians, as the basis for a significant contribution often varies per discipline. “You can’t really pin [the criteria] down to specific numbers,” Dayrit maintains.

“The Math community isn’t that big, so if you’re looking at citations, you might not see too many citations for a Math paper, whereas, [papers] in Medicine usually get a lot of citations,” Dayrit elaborates. “Some of these areas also change over time; maybe 20 years ago, weather and disaster [articles] wouldn’t [have been] so highly-cited, but today they’d be highly-cited because of climate change.”

Dayrit describes the same all-or-nothing voting protocol in awarding National Scientists—who are chosen from the existing pool of Academicians—as looking for “game-changing contributions” in the form of a niche or impactful discovery specifically attributable to that scientist.

Moreover, NAST also elects officers for its Executive Council, which is the governing body of the Academy. Each division selects a division chair, who then elect among themselves a president, vice president, and secretary of the council.

Extending the reach

Beneath the polished exterior attached to such distinctions, NAST understands that there is still work to do beyond the discoveries and publications.

The Academy operates as an independent body when giving advice regarding science-related projects and legislations. “I’m a member of NAST, but I’m [neither] employed by NAST [nor] by DOST—I don’t have the [obligation] that I should support all the DOST proposals,” Dayrit clarifies, emphasizing that opinions must still be substantiated by scientific evidence. “If you’re going to say something, do some research [first].”

Although NAST has an open line of communication with DOST, Dayrit laments the lack of science-backed legislations, “[DOST] Secretary [Fortunato] dela Peña really asks for the opinion of NAST on issues…But not all government agencies have the same open channel…Yung mga maiingay ang napapakinggan [in Congress], and only very few [scientists] are maingay.”

(Only the outspoken individuals are listened to.)

Still, the Academy is tenacious in pursuing endeavors to reach out and “improve awareness…about the importance of science”—recognizing Outstanding Young Scientists, participating in international academies, sending speakers to schools and events, and hosting Annual Scientific Meetings and public forums.

Then, gratification

“Earlier this year, linapitan ako ng isang estudyante [who said], ‘I attended your talk, and I took up science because of you’,” Dayrit narrates. He projects wistfully, “If [only] that could be multiplied many times…” Perhaps then, the number of slots in the Academy will have expanded—evidence of an increasing population of Filipino scientists.

(A student approached me.)

Even at the pinnacles of their respective careers, Academicians and National Scientists remain at the forefront of furthering the development of the local scientific community—the award is just as much an honor as it is an unabating duty.

With this, Dayrit admits, “It can be very busy, but actually, it’s strictly voluntary…Whatever I do for NAST is over and above what I’m doing [in my permanent job].”

By Erinne Ong

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