Do we really need scientists?
- Boo Chanco () - September 8, 2008 - 12:00am

Last week, I received a press release from Sen. Ed Angara calling upon students to pursue science and technology (S&T) courses to help boost the country’s technological capacity to innovate and thus enhance our country’s economic growth and prosperity. Angara was supposed to have made this call in a speech before the 6th Philippine Youth Congress in Information Technology held in University of the Philippines – Diliman.

I didn’t give the release a second glance and promptly clicked my mouse to consign it in the trash bin. It was one of those motherhood press releases that politicians love. Angara had positioned himself as an advocate for education, science and technology.

The following day however, someone posted an article in our Plaridel e-group written by a UP trained Physicist. The main point as I understand it: anyone who follows Angara’s advice dooms himself to a life of poverty and frustration. Our country and our kind of economic development, it seems, has no use for trained scientists now and in the immediate future. I quickly retrieved Angara’s press release from the trash bin if only to compare what the senator is saying against the reality this scientist is painting.

Kim Gargar is the scientist who wrote the article. Gargar has a Master of Science in Physics from UP Diliman and now teaches at the Mapua Institute of Technology. On this particular issue, I would give more importance to what Gargar wrote than what the eminent senator said in his speech.

There is a serious mismatch, Gargar writes, “as students they went through several years of hard study in high-level science but end up working to do activities that do not require their advanced skills. Gargar cites examples.

“A graduate of BS Biology working as bank teller; a BS Chemistry graduate teaching P.E.; a physicist fresh from college selling toothpaste and other products of a multi-level marketing company; a mechanical engineer assembling electric fans in a Laguna factory; an electronics engineer soldering TV circuits for a Japanese TV company; a cum laude chemical engineering graduate titrating (a simple laboratory method of quantitative/chemical analysis often used to determine the unknown concentration of a known reactant) every day in a quality control laboratory for a food manufacturing factory.”

What we have, Gargar points out, is an educational system that produces far very few good scientists and engineers probably because we have a working environment that does not need too many or none at all. We seem to be happy with the kind of jobs available in call centers and the business-process outsourcing industry where such fine credentials are not needed.

So, what was Sen. Angara smoking when in his speech, he urged young people to take up science and technology? “I am telling you that taking up a career in S&T,” the senator declared, “will offer you more opportunities than it did in the past, because the kind of jobs that are coming to the Philippines did not exist just a few years ago. We as your leaders are laying the groundwork for a strong Philippine S&T and ICT sector.”

Come again, Mr. Senator… just what do you, our leaders, have to show beyond eloquent speeches by way of “laying the groundwork for a strong Philippine S&T and ICT sector?” Whatever it is, it must be pretty invisible or young scientists like Gargar wouldn’t be writing a reality-based article on what young scientists can expect if they decide to stay in the country.

Then again, we agree with Gargar and Angara that the country needs highly trained science majors or our economy will not progress to tiger status like our neighbors in Southeast Asia. The need is there. It is just that somehow, our leaders or maybe society as a whole, have failed to match that need with a living wage and a professionally challenging career. Only lawyers and politicians are being rewarded by our society.

Last week, there was this report that our weather bureau and Phivolcs scientists are being made to work day and night for measly pay. And if the news reports are accurate, the Budget Department has consistently rejected pleas for an allocation to cover overtime and night differential pay. In fact, the budget of the Department of Science for next year is being cut. We have not heard Sen. Angara protest this lack of appreciation for the few scientists we still have.

How do we show this low regard for scientists? Let Gargar count the ways.

“A Science Education Institute survey revealed that only one out of five high school physics teachers is qualified to teach physics.” A Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) survey of 2nd year high school students, the Philippines ranks 43rd among Asian countries. At the top is South Korea while Indonesia ranks 36th on the list.

“The number of research scientists and technologists for every million Filipinos is around 100. This is very much lower than the United Nations prescription for the Philippines—380 for every million. However, even with the small size of the science and technology sector, underemployment is one big problem of the sector.”

“If a fresh science and engineering graduate is lucky enough, he gets to teach in universities and colleges and be able to impart what he had studied for several years. If not, he would go abroad and join research laboratories in Japan, the US, and Europe depriving the country further of highly skilled intellectual workforce. Even with a Balik scientist program, it is hard to have them stay here in our country.”

“If not teaching, those with some sense of patriotism remain in the country as technicians or as managers (still not a science practitioner) in multinational corporations. For instance, many graduate Physics degree holders or students from the National Institute of Physics are now in the production lines of semiconductor companies where research and development (R&D) activity is very minimal and limited to improving operations efficiency.”

“Many chemical engineers or chemists practice their profession as consultants to local or foreign chemical companies helping them solve elementary problems that do not require advanced methods or principles in chemistry. ‘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.”

“Add to these our medical doctors who after studying for more than nine years just to add an “MD” after their names are now starting to prepare themselves to become nurses in America. How about our few very good high school science teachers migrating to the US to earn dollars by teaching in public schools there?”

There is no doubt Sen. Angara appreciates the problem at hand when he cited our most basic need is “to improve our Science, Math and Engineering (SME) education because these are the weakest sectors in the education system.” We can also appreciate moves to increase the quality and number of graduate studies in engineering through the Engineering R&D for Technology project where nearly P6.5B is targeted for scholarships and infrastructure.

But Gargar is right to point out that increasing the number of human resources in science and technology is only one part… what is the government’s strategic plan on development? Maybe the current model of industrial development needs to be reconsidered. Our “cheap” labor advantage is no more. What’s our strategic advantage now? The nationalist scientists have long pointed out that in the absence of critical base industries, what need is there for a highly trained scientists or engineers?

People like Senator Angara should be delivering speeches that answer the question, where do we go from here? How do we keep the few trained men and women in science and technology we do have from leaving? Or do we invest all that money on young people to study and be world class scientists only to lose them and all our investment because our environment has frustrated them?

Or maybe, we don’t really need cutting edge scientists. Maybe we just want more lawyers to constantly change the constitution and our form of government to entertain us in lieu of everything else. Oh well…

Physics professor

In class, a Physics professor was spinning on an office chair holding weights in each hand to illustrate a principle when he lost his balance and tumbled into the first row.

He apologized to his class for going off on a tangent.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is

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