Resurrected group may lure more Pinoy scientists home

by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO and ISAGANI DE LA PAZ
www.ofwjournalism.net

MAKATI CITY (OFW Journalism Consortium)–MORE than money, members of the resurrected Science and Technology Advisory Council (Stac) of the Philippines want what’s inside the minds of Filipino scientists abroad. They are hoping to find there the methods to resuscitate the country’s struggling science and technology sector.

After nearly three decades of fizzling out, the Stac was again jumpstarted in view of the need to sustain record growth of the economy not only through government spending and private consumption.

The latter, to note, has been caused by remittances not only from scientists abroad, which there are no official count, but from migrant workers in other profession. Of the estimated eight million Filipinos overseas, almost four million are working on temporary or short-term contracts mainly in the service sector and performing blue-collar jobs.

These have been touted by analysts like the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) that, in a recent paper, has forecast private consumption would be lower next year.

“Private consumption, which will continue to be underpinned by remittances from migrant workers overseas, is predicted to increase by 5.4 percent, a slight deceleration from the 2007 rate of 5.6 percent,” noted the recently-released Jetro paper titled “2008 Economic Outlook for East Asia”. “Government consumption is expected to increase by just [seven] percent, a rate lower than in 2007, as the government restrains its consumption expenditures in an effort to balance the budget,” the 66-paged report added.

Economists and former Stac head Federico Macaranas believes science and technology would be a key factor in sustaining the economy other than the two elements.

“We have no choice but regenerate the innovation environment,” Federico Macaranas said early December at a forum titled ““Handog ng Overseas Filipinos”.

Macaranas believes that a reverse “brain drain” of the country’s best minds would create jobs and sustain competitive homeland firms and industries.

A presentation paper early this year by Department of Science and Technology official Ester B. Ogena supports such view.

Ogena, director of the DOST-attached agency Science Education Institute, emphasizes that beefing up the country’s science and technology manpower is a “national security issue”.

“The program has economic and educational implications; it is a matter of national survival,” Ogena said, adding that a substantial increase in the country’s S&T manpower is important to ensure economic viability and develop competitiveness.

Macaranas is banking on the Stac, a group established in the 1980s and which he led as executive director, to help the supply worries expressed by Ogeña.

These Filipinos’ “business intelligence,” he says, would hopefully generate the supply and meet the demand of a growing economy.

Stacked

THE move to lure more scientists and technologists to their homeland is relevant as government’s Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan is nearing its 2010 end.

The plan acknowledged even in 2005 that “upgrading the state of the country’s science and technology is critical for accelerating economic growth.”

Within six years beginning 2004, the government planned to accomplish this by four major initiatives, including promoting innovation through protection of intellectual property rights, lower processing fees for patents and more attractive royalty sharing; and, promotion of technology-based entrepreneurship in small and medium enterprises.

The other two major elements include improving the competitiveness of S&T workers through accreditation and the Balik Scientist Program; and, accelerating transfer of technology.

DOST’s Balik-Scientist Program, now 31 years and running, had seen some 285 scientists, engineers, and medical professionals doing short-to-long-term visits to transfer technology into the country.

Some 113 of these Balik Scientist fellows have stayed in the Philippines for good, said DOST Undersecretary Fortunato de la Peña, as the program now prioritizes experts in alternative energy, biotechnology, information technology, pharmaceuticals, and environment.

Still, when matched with other Asian countries’ S&T manpower generation, the Balik Scientist program beginning 1976 appears weak.

Based on Ogena’s presentation, Thailand, which had 103 scientists and technologists for every million population in 1987 to 1997, produced an S&T manpower base of 286 experts per million citizens in the 13-year period of 1990-2003.

Malaysia, which had a lower base of 93 per million citizens in the ten-year period, soared to producing 23 experts a year to a 2003-base of 299 for every million Malaysians.

The Philippines, which had a higher S&T manpower base of 157 per million Filipinos in the ten-year period beginning 1987, currently was at 108, and overtaken by Thailand and Malaysia.

DOST director Bernie Justimbaste said this is even lower than Vietnam’s 516. Vietnam claims to have 41,117 scientists and engineers.

For a population of 88 million, the Philippines has some 8,866 scientists and engineers. Given the accumulated total of 13,488 research and technology (R&D) personnel, the ratio is 164 per a million Filipinos, says data from the DOST.

With a nearly P6-billion (US$144 million at US$1=P41) expenditure on R&D, the Philippines spends only 0.14 percent of its gross domestic product for research and development.

DOST’s 2007 budget is even smaller: P3.511 billion (US$85.6 million).

Ogena emphasized the urgency of the country’s need to undertake the program to meet a major gap in the global standard for the number of research and development personnel or scientists for every million people.

Culture

IN the same forum, Senator Edgardo Angara is keen on Stac as propelling what he calls a “culture of innovation.”

Angara admits government support to S&T is still wanting, especially in providing advanced laboratories for returning scientists.

Without that culture, he says, “we will not reach advanced levels.”

“Filipino scientists returning to the country will only go back ‘home’ abroad,” Angara said during the forum organized by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center that Macaranas currently heads as executive director.

Knowledge management specialist Serafin Talisayon of the University of the Philippines Technology Management Center added there is also the problems in patents as, he claims, Filipino engineering professors rarely own one.

“We have never made a bet on an S&T policy, and people in S&T do not deserve (this kind of) lackadaisical thinking,” Mapua Institute of Technology President Dr. Reynaldo Vea added.

Vea, an engineer, adds, that a country in need of R&D personnel continuously sees her engineers and software developers going overseas, with the Philippines subsidizing the S&T manpower training of foreign countries.

This even raises concerns from foreign investors, IBM Asia-Pacific Vice President Stephen Braim said during a DOST conference early this year.

To make the Philippines a hub of innovation both locally and overseas, Braim said, the skills supply base in the country “should be taken cared of”.

Innovation

BUT Macaranas is optimistic reviving the Stac can address these issues.

Even as a 2006 Asian Development Bank study on “brain gain” cited that the country’s knowledge transfer activities by Filipinos abroad “come few and far between,” Macaranas still banks on Filipinos overseas.
He says these Filipinos can begin giving back non-cash “gifts” like knowledge, innovation and even technology forecasting.

May more of those gifts of knowledge from Filipinos abroad be stacked here, Macaranas said.

The revival of Stac, however, remains an uphill climb since only Japan’s chapter has remained alive and well among the multiple-country Stac chapters formed during the early 1990s.

Filipino scientists and academics teaching in Japanese universities “wanted to be useful,” said Stac-Japan member and Foreign Affairs department spokesperson Claro Cristobal.

Stac-Japan teaches Filipina entertainers in Japan computer literacy and entrepreneurship, supports S&T theses of rural-based Philippine universities, and recently funded a commercial mushroom production project in Nueva Ecija.

Talisayon agrees with Macaranas, adding that he is looking for stacks of benefits from skilled overseas migration by Filipinos.

A “knowledge transfer” initiative where the Stac and DOST’s Balik-Scientist Program can come in, he says, is in animation, where Filipino cartoonists sketch for Hollywood’s animation films, or in engineering jobs that can now be outsourced globally.

Talisayon cites other examples.

There is Cagayan-born Diosdado Banatao, a venture capitalist, and former Saudi Arabia electrical engineer Gamaliel Itao, whose Cebu-based Industrial Controls Corp. is now a leading provider of products and services to six industries, including automotives.

May more of those gifts of knowledge from these Filipinos abroad be stacked here, Macaranas said.