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Science and Environment

Demolishing the ivory tower via Facebook

STAR SCIENCE - Maria Corazon A. De Ungria, PhD - The Philippine Star

One common image that comes across people’s minds when the word “scientist” is mentioned is an old man in a white laboratory coat, with disheveled hair, wearing broad rimmed glasses and who is absent-minded and too engrossed in experiments to notice people, things and events around him. This first image is usually associated with a second image – this time, of an ivory tower – where a scientist is known to work in isolation, separated from the real world in order to provide the environment conducive for higher forms of learning. An ivory tower is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a secluded place that affords the means of treating practical issues with an impractical often escapist attitude; especially : a place of learning.” Wikipedia devoted an entire article on “ivory tower” and included a commentary on how some “specialists” are unable to simplify their science in order for the general public to understand, and in fact, many have given up all attempts to do so1.

This negative connotation of scientists, including Filipino scientists, continues to persist in many sectors of society. However, several attempts to bring Philippine science to the grassroots have been made, including the weekly publication of a science article in this newspaper since June 2004. In fact, a collection of Star Science articles had been compiled in a book entitled “Science and Technology for Securing a Better Philippines” that was published by the UP Press in 2008. Apparently, the articles were “selected because they promote science in the public mind2.” This author has contributed several articles on forensic DNA technology and its application in the Philippines, to Star Science3.

However, the challenge of decreasing the “apparent isolation” of scientists locked up in their ivory tower away from the general public remains. The science may slowly be understood but are the scientists working to engage the general public? Why is this real-time engagement critical for both the public and the scientists?

In the scientific convention and annual meeting of the Outstanding Young Scientists (OYS) held last July 8 at the Traders Hotel with the theme of “Infrastructure, Information and Innovation for Inclusive Growth,” a couple of plenary talks provided snippets of answers to this question. Dr Delfin Jay Sabido, research and development executive of the System and Technology Group of IBM Philippines, talked about “open data access, shared values and partnerships” as integral contributors to the success of institutions. Meanwhile, Ms. Lila Ramos Shahani, assistant secretary and communications head of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cluster, Communications Group Office of the Aquino administration, discussed the huge disparity among the different economic classes in the Philippines, and how national growth is hampered because the effects of growth are felt only by the upper and middle classes, hence the issue of “inclusivity of some but not all.” This is one significant paradox afflicting the Philippines.

How then can one combine the messages of both talks to formulate a solution that would effectively contribute to nation building? There is one answer that is both doable and challenging – scientists must engage the general public, regardless of social class, level of education, religious beliefs or political inclinations, in real time. Scientists must provide the public access to scientific information and must learn to speak the language of the people, without losing the science. The public’s response to the science can then provide scientists immediate and real-time feedback on the relevance, or lack thereof, of any field of study, thereby serving as a “barometer” of social questions that need to be addressed by science. Having this type of direct engagement, scientists are able to blend their wisdom with the values of the people, as well as enable the people to appreciate the practical applications of science in providing solutions to common problems. This type of engagement will inevitably result in the demolition of the “ivory tower” that isolated the scientist from society.

A powerful social networking tool that is presently available for this type of real-time engagement between scientists and the public is Facebook, which was initially launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues in Harvard University simply as a tool to determine the attractiveness of students and faculty members. The name “The Facebook” originated from a form that was distributed to university students that contained the “profiles of students and teachers” in Harvard4. Within 24 hours from its initial launch, over 1,200 Harvard university students had signed up and over half the undergraduate student population had uploaded their profiles a month later. In 10 years, Facebook users have reached the 1.23 billion mark, and the Facebook population is predicted to surpass the number of people living in China by 20155. In the UK and the US, one out of every three people was logging onto his Facebook account daily6.  In the Philippines, there are 30 million users as of 2014, with a slightly higher percentage of female users (46 percent) than male (43 percent). Forty percent are young persons aged 18-24; followed by 25 to 34 year olds (26 percent) and 13 to 17 year olds (15 percent)7, making Facebook a very powerful and relatively inexpensive tool to get a piece of information across to the general public.

In spite of its usefulness, Facebook has undergone its own challenges in the past 10 years. Many of these issues are related to the misuse of information that had been more accessible, the lack of discretion in the types of information that had been made public, the apparent replacement of personal communication with an impersonal and digitized form of conveying messages to family and friends, and the “addiction” of some users to Facebook, resulting in loss of valuable time for work, study and social relations. In some institutions, employees are banned from accessing Facebook in the office or at the very least, during office hours.

But the criticisms put forward by these arguments relate more to the misuse of the tool rather than to the tool itself. One can maintain that Facebook continues to be a potentially powerful tool to get science to the people, using an interesting and visually engaging platform that could cut across different social and economic classes; and for scientists to get immediate and diverse responses from the public. In fact, one can even control the access to information by selecting the appropriate privacy settings, e.g. open, closed or secret; and to share a piece of information to a wider community, by sharing in one’s timeline, or to choose to share this information only to a specific group.

Contributing toward bringing Filipino science to the people, several Facebook accounts have been created. The Outstanding Young Scientist Inc. (OYSI) Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/188345757894040/) was started over a year ago by Dr. Ricardo del Rosario (OYS awardee in 2005) with the goal of engaging the group of scientists who had been recognized by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) for their scientific excellence even before reaching the age of 40. The initial challenge was to reach OYS awardees from 1980 to the present and to get the members to bring themselves “out of isolation” in order to interact with the rest of the OYS community. Out of the 315 awardees, the account now has 81 members, many of whom have submitted information about their field of expertise, their updated location and contact details. This development can be seen as a positive step toward opening the door for scientific collaborations amongst scientists, and sharing of information with the public.

Early this year, a Facebook account was created for the Philippine Association of Career Scientists (https://www.facebook.com/groups/680829648630616/) by this author to serve as a digital platform for those who had been conferred Career Scientist ranks by the Department of Science and Technology and the Civil Service Commission8. Career scientists work in different government research institutions who may or may not have been conferred the NAST OYS awards before they reached 40 years old. Hence this account adds to the information shared in the OYS account. To date, 136 career scientists have been named but only 47 have remained in active duty. Of these, 19 have become members of the PACS Facebook account. In fact, the PACS account reported the first meeting of 30 scientists in a two-day needs assessment last May 30-31 aimed at determining issues and concerns affecting the productivity of Filipino scientists engaged in full-time research in government institutions such as the Philippine Carabao Center, Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, National Museum, University of the Philippines, National Fisheries Research and Development Institute and PhilRice. The consolidated output of the workshop was submitted to the Scientific Career Council for appropriate action. Unknown to many, these career scientists have had to engage farmers, fieldworkers, fishermen, law enforcement personnel, lawyers and local government officials in order to use their scientific discoveries to improve the condition of the community.

With the availability of the PACS and OYS Facebook pages that are both open accounts, Filipino scientists can share useful information and events with the public both locally and internationally, in order to engage the community in real-time with the overall goal of maximizing the benefits of scientific discoveries for all Filipinos. In doing this, one can say that the demolition of the ivory tower has begun.

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1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivory_tower

2 Dr. Caesar Saloma

3 http://www.philstar.com; search Author Archives

4 http://www. theguardian.com/technology/2007/jul/25/media.newmedia

5 http://mashable.com/2014/01/30/ facebook-china-population/

6 http://www.theguardian.com/news/ datablog/2014/feb/04/facebook-in-numbers-statistics

7 http://www.gethooked360.com/ facebook-reaches-30-million-users-in-the-philippines/

8 http://www.philstar.com/science-and-technology/2014/07/10/1344302/scientific-career-system-confers-scientist-rank-11-govt

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Dr. Maria Corazon A. de Ungria is a University Researcher III of the DNA Analysis Laboratory, Natural Sciences Research Institute, University of the Philippines, and Scientist II of the Scientific Career System of the Department of Science and Technology/Civil Service Commission since 2013. She was named as one of Outstanding Young Scientists in 2003 by the National Academy of Science and Technology. She served in the OYS board from 2007-2014 and was tasked to manage the membership database during this period. While performing this task, she realized the need to foster a spirit of collaboration and partnership, in order to showcase the academic excellence of Filipino scientists who collectively aim to serve the nation through science. Besides these two Facebook accounts, she actively contributes to other Facebook accounts by selectively sharing appropriate information for each group, thereby respecting the interest of its members and the overall goal of the group. She manages the DNA Analysis Laboratory account (https://www.facebook.com/ DNAForensicAndEthnicity/info) and co-manages the Innocence Project Philippines (https://www.facebook.com/InnocenceProjectPhilippines/info) and the UP Padayon Disaster Response Team (https://www.facebook.com/UPDisasterResponse Team/info) accounts. Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/maria.c.deungria and e-mail address, [email protected] She also acknowledges Atty. Jose Manguera Jose, supervising lawyer of the UP Office of Legal Aide, College of Law, for editing this article and providing continuous feedback on the need to simplify scientific terms for the benefit of one’s readers.

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