Explaining my cause about Philippine science

by Flor Lacanilao

After my final paper (http://www.philippinestoday.net/archives/1205), which reviews my commentaries about RP science, I got two reactions that tell me I still failed to clarify my main objective. Since they are from the scientific community, I thought of clarifying some points.

From my first paper in The Philippine Star (“R&D process” in 2005), I was informing the public about the poor science in the Philippines — the situation, why and how it happened and persisted, causes and symptoms, culprits and victims, etc. I was not trying to get support from the scientific community because some scientists are also to blame (culprits); hence, part of my target.

The main cause is the NAST, and the main culprits are those running it. The problem of non-scientist members and officials has been entrenched through its 30 years of degenerative existence, while the scientist members kept silent. Today the scientists are the minority and nonscientists occupy all official positions. Under such condition, I thought internal change with the usual and democratic process is hardly feasible. And the positive approach would not work, even with the persuasive force of eloquent language and elegant English, which I don’t have. To me all I needed was enough bullets since I intended to line them up against the wall, as I did in my final paper.

Let me review one last time (hirap nitong mahina sa English).

1. Role of the scientist

(a) Under normal conditions, scientists are produced and contribute to the advancement of science. Many are rewarded — promotion, recognition, major prizes, etc. They then serve as “role model for defining excellence in science for the next generation of scientists.” Conducive atmosphere is important to do research.

(b) Under present conditions in the Philippines, however,

  • only a few become prominent scientists;
  • many are frustrated and do other things (internal brain drain);
  • some do studies anyway because the present system rewards them for gray literature, become prominent “scientists” who end up as academic leaders or science administrators, and perpetuates mediocrity;
  • a few have to sip-sip (kiss ass) to gain favor, get things done, and achieve a desired public recognition or honor. An unfair exchange for integrity. Nakakasuka, I mean kissing ass.

    The situation is a vicious cycle — poor research condition, stunted growth of science, underdevelopment (resulting in poverty).

2. Need for literate scientists

(a) Unlike the scientist above whose work contributes to scientific knowledge and advances his or her career, a literate scientist is not only concerned “about the advancement of science just for science’s sake.” He or she is concerned “about advancing science in the context of a desire to improve the human condition.” Not just concerned but doing something about it. This is explained in detail in ref 11, “S&T for sustainable well-being” (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/319/5862/424.pdf).

(b) A science academy needs not only accomplished scientists, but who are also literate scientists. It is the organization that is crucial in advancing science and improving human condition. Effective science administration (DOST), for example, is an important concern of a strong science academy (NAST), and this decides the right person for the job.

(c) Another important function of a science academy, which is dependent on literate scientists, is promoting the public’s understanding of science. This is particularly important among government and industry leaders and media people.

(d) The NAST is therefore the cause of the poor state of science in the Philippines, and only its officials and scientists are to blame. The non-scientist members are just victims; not different from our mass voters who decide the leaders.

3. My cause

(a) Although I had an excellent graduate training at Berkeley and has published two breakthrough papers (one on milkfish breeding described by Raul Suarez in a Philippine Star article, and another on comparative endocrinology I published in Science as sole author), I gave up a career in research. I tried instead to help change the condition described in 1c. But even as department chairman twice of zoology at UP Diliman in the 1970s, my ideas could not get popular support (even when UP was already preparing for its diamond jubilee). I tried again at SEAFDEC as R&D manager in the 1980s and early1990s, and transformed it into a world-class R&D organization (see table of publications of Filipino biologists dominated by SEAFDEC researchers in, www.seafdec.org.ph/news_rp_science_fresh_start.htm or http://www.philippinestoday.net/archives/1204).

This gave more personal satisfaction than any public recognition I could earn had I pursued a research career at home or abroad.

(b) Changing the present system that stunts the growth of RP science by focusing on the culprits has been my driving force in a series of papers since 2005. I was making an objective assessment of the situation as mentioned above. My failure to make this clear was the reason for the negative comments from mixed observers and constructive suggestions from scientist friends. But I maintained my course.

(c) To me it was clear that the two culprits in the NAST are the scientist members and the non-scientist officers (cause and effect). The nonscientists dominate (by large majority) the membership and make up all of the officers. Under such condition, internal change through the democratic process will not work. Meanwhile, thousands of Filipino children are suffering from malnutrition and dying of hunger and disease every year, which is due to persistent poverty mainly caused by poor science.

(d) Yet government programs did not see poor science as a major cause of underdevelopment, but instead focused on its symptoms — poverty, overpopulation, and poor education, etc. This confusion between the symptoms and causes of national problems was the result of NAST’s failure to promote the public’s understanding of science. And this ignorance of science by government leaders has prevented the “transition from a crisis/symptom mode to a prevention/cure mode” of solving national problems.

I tried to explain and review the events in the final paper, which got the usual numerous expression of support, such as more power to you. This only suggests yet a lot of work to be done and challenges the young generation of Filipino scientists. These scientists have been left only a poor research environment by their predecessors. Ed Padlan aptly quotes Jose Rizal for having said, “Our talented men have died bequeathing to us nothing more than the fame of their name.”