Making that other SME ST-A A +A
The Point Being
Friday, October 25, 2013
NO I am not referring to small and medium-scale enterprises or the more mainstream SME that, although still in a challenged state, is not bereft of attention from government, business and other sector. The other less known and less supported SME are science, math and engineering, perhaps known better as S&T or ST meaning science and technology.
Flashback to 2001 businessman and politician Manny Villar made his ST or “sipag at tiyaga” platform very popular through ads. It was said that Villar’s advisers were, tongue in cheek, connecting to and building on a buzz phrase of the 90s, the ST films. During those years ST stood for “sexy and titillating” or “sex trip”, films that viewers of a particular demographic found appealing.
In another flashback, columnist Boo Chanco’s September 8, 2008 piece in the Philippine Star quoted an article written in the Plaridel e-groupof which Chanco was a subscriber. Chanco extensively quoted the author of the article, Kim Gargar, a physicist.
Gargar wrote vividly of the mismatch and disconnects which members of the scientific and technological community in our country experience, particularly the “several years of hard study in high-level science but end up working to do activities that do not require their advanced skills”.
Chanco quoted Gargar, a Mindanawan who hails from Iligan, as saying “‘Brain drain’ does not only happen with people leaving the country for employment abroad; it is also possible when people’s talents are not tapped for domestic use.”
Five years later, Gargar would add to his list of issues that daunt members of the scientific and technological community his own personal experience of being suspected of illegal doings in the course of pursuing legitimate scientific work. On October 2, 2013elements of the 67th Infantry Battalion illegally arrested Kim Gargar in Cateel, Davao Oriental. He was subsequently charged with two counts of attempted murder, violation of election gun ban and illegal possession of explosives.
At the time of his arrest Kim was doing fieldwork for a project in areas affected by Typhoon Pablo. He was injured avoiding a crossfire between government soldiers and the New People’s Army (NPA). Gargar who is completing his PhD in chronobiology from the University of Groningenwas observing fireflies as indicators of environmental health, and also in relation to chronobiology. He described his work in chronobiologyas an effort to “explain properties of biological clocks using mathematical models”. He denied all the charges against him and claimed that the evidence were planted.
Gargar is a promising addition to the Philippine scientific, technological and academic community having secured a degree in BS Physics (Magna Cum Laude), and won recognition as Class Valedictorian of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology. He also taught and headed a department at the Mindanao Polytechnic State College, and held teaching and research jobs with the Mapua Institute of Technology and the University of the Philippines.
Kim is also a critical and engaged scientist. As a member of the Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, and as the Local and International Networking Officer of the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines, he volunteered for a number of environmental missions and supported environmental advocacies. He demonstrated the kind of social commitment needed from Filipino professionals.
Another Filipino scientist, botanist Leonard Co who was renowned for his work in taxonomy, and his fellow field workers Julius Borromeo and Sofronio Cortez, paid a dearer price in 2010. The three were conducting a biodiversity study in Kananga, Leyte when they were killed. The Philippine Army claimed it was a crossfire but survivors belied the claim.
Risks to life and limb are but among the many challenges that professionals from the science, math and engineering fields face.
Gargar himself cited in the 2008 article that a Science Education Institute survey indicated “only one out of five high school physics teachers is qualified to teach physics”; and that in a Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) survey of 2nd year high school students, the Philippines ranked 43rd among Asian countries. South Korea topped the list while Indonesia came in 36th.The Philippines also only has 100research scientists and technologists for every million Filipinos; which is way below the United Nations prescription of 380 for every million. Despite that small size, Gargar pointed out that the risk of underemployment is very real for Filipinos engaged in the science and technology sector.
Aside from public spending for education, a critical factor that underpins such poor showing in science and technology is the level of investment in research and development. Finesa Cosico, Secretary-General of Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, lamented, “The current R&D spending reflects government’s neglect on this sector”. Agham’s analysis of the 2014 national budget showed that a measly 0.53 percent was allocated for the whole science and technology sector. Set against the UNESCO prescription of at least 1 percent of GDP to be allocated for R&D and the practice of OECD countries of allocating about 2.25 percent of their national budget to R&D, Agham believes that the Philippines has a long way to go to demonstrate support to research and development, particularly for science and technology.
Mainstream thinking banners the view that scientific and technological breakthroughs support national development. By extension then more effective State support can be argued to enable the Filipino S&T to contribute what it must and what it can. From the vantage point of Agham the role of science and technology is essential in the development of society. It is a decisive factor for the country's economic capability from the identification, extraction, acquisition, maintenance and care of resources, to production and distribution of goods for the needs of society.
This conviction underpins the critique of the Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People’s on the current emphasis of institutions in the fields of S&T. Dr. Giovanni Tapang, the organization’s chairperson, commented thus "DOST is one of the agencies that is given a meager budget which results to poor delivery of science and technology programs for the people. Divorced from a general program of building domestic industries, it has a program, for example, that is geared towards the testing needs of foreign semiconductor locators rather than building our own capabilities in this regard."
Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People went on to say, “Science and technology research can enhance different areas such as food production, education, nutrition and even disaster risk reduction to help reduce poverty and contribute to development”.
But S&T research cannot do that for as long as the likes of Kim Gargar, Leonard Coand others who go on fieldwork are not guaranteed physical security. The vital contributions of those in the science, math and engineering cannot be fully harnessed for as long as work abroad becomes the only real option for those who want to engage in fulfilling, rather than frustrating, work in these fields.
How can we make this other SME more compelling then?
For starters, we have to make ST the pursuit of S&T disciplines.
Filipino scientists and technology experts have sipag and tiyaga. But the State has to ensure that S&T disciplines are supported in fiscal and institutional terms, and targeted, in the sense that the sector is prioritized and clear measurement of performance and success are set.
Also, to entice these professionals to stay and work for the country’s and the peoples’ benefits, we have to make S&T safe and transfixing, thrilling even; but certainly not life threatening.
Kim Gargar,like other professionals in science, math and engineering, has much to offer that a country whose new normal includes pronounced risks, hazards and disasters due to climate change needs to harness. He should be set free and let be to get on with the work.
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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on October 26, 2013.