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Opinion

Careers in science

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

How do you make science and technology an attractive career option for students?

By making S&T fun, and making it pay, preferably well.

The new secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) wants lessons on entrepreneurship included in the curriculum of the country’s budding scientists.

We know DOST chief Renato Solidum better as an expert on volcanoes and earthquakes. The job seems fun and exciting – the stuff of blockbuster movies.

But in this country, his profession is not seen as a ticket to the kind of wealth that members of Congress and the judiciary, local government executives and many top officials of the national government are perceived to make, almost as soon as they assume their posts.

Pursuing a career in S&T, engineering and mathematics or STEM also requires top-quality education – something that has become a luxury for millions of Filipinos.

Solidum is undeterred. He wants the DOST to provide more support for S&T start-ups, from funding access for research and development to patenting and marketing inventions. The assistance can include support for applying the results of R&D to improving operations and productivity across the socioeconomic spectrum as well as for national security purposes.

Israel, which has one of the largest shares per capita of Nobel prizes in the sciences, has one of the world’s most impressive innovation ecosystems. Israeli innovators have not only made a lot of money from their inventions and ideas, but have also made their country one of the most prosperous and competitive in the world, and fully capable of defending itself in a hostile neighborhood.

Some years ago I attended an international innovation conference in Tel Aviv. Nearly all the Israeli innovators pitching their start-ups and ideas whom I met were no older than 40. Many were in their 20s but were already setting up companies, with state funding assistance, for the commercial rollout of their products or services.

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In our case, there are graduates of science courses who became billionaires, and who can serve as role models. Jollibee’s Tony Tan Caktiong is a chemical engineering graduate of the University of Santo Tomas. Rolando Hortaleza finished medicine, but shifted to R&D and produced the bestselling Extraderm exfoliant and Skin White of Splash Corp. and HBC beauty products, which made him a billionaire. He has since sold the company and shifted to the Barrio Fiesta brand of condiments. Mercury Drug president and CEO Vivian Que-Azcona is a pharmacy graduate also of UST. She took over from her father Mariano Que who founded in 1945 what became the country’s biggest pharmacy chain.

More recently, internal medicine and infectious disease specialist Raul Destura must have earned his first billion from developing the country’s first and only rapid reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction COVID test, with a much lower price than the commercially available RT-PCR. Doctor Destura founded Manila HealthTek Inc., which specializes in molecular diagnostic, biotechnology products and services.

Last May, as the country was preoccupied with the general elections, MTek launched a new subsidiary, GenAmplify Technologies Inc. GTI will manufacture and distribute diagnostic testing kits for communicable and non-communicable diseases, including dengue and African swine fever.

Israel, which reportedly has about 4,000 start-ups this year, is also said to have the world’s highest number per capita of “unicorns” – a private start-up that attains a valuation of over $1 billion.

So yes, Juan and Juana, science and technology can be hugely profitable – and you get to help people and the country in the process.

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There is an Israel Innovation Authority, which describes itself as “an independent and impartial public entity” responsible for the Jewish state’s innovation policy. It declares: “Innovation is by far the most valuable resource for the State of Israel, serving as a national asset crucial to economic prosperity.”

It offers tools and programs “for early stage entrepreneurs, mature companies developing new products or manufacturing processes, academic groups seeking to transfer their ideas to the market, multinational corporations interested in Israeli technology, Israeli companies seeking new markets abroad, and traditional factories and plants seeking to incorporate innovative and advanced manufacturing into their businesses.”

Becoming a “start-up nation” like Israel requires considerable investments in R&D. Israel and South Korea are constantly battling for the honor of allocating the largest share of GDP to R&D, both at nearly 5 percent – more than double the global average of 2.4 percent.

In contrast, the share of R&D to GDP in the Philippines is approximately 0.1 percent, lower than the one percent suggested by UNESCO for developing countries.

In real dollar numbers, the US remains the world’s biggest spender on R&D, followed by China and Japan.

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Will Solidum find the necessary political support to significantly increase spending on science and technology, and allow his push for entrepreneurial training alongside S&T?

China understands the importance of innovation and has been luring back its scientists from around the world with attractive incentives.

In our case, our S&T sectors including the weather bureau – the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration – suffered from a serious brain drain for many years. Solidum says the problem in PAGASA has been addressed.

We have a modest “Balik-Scientist” program to stop the STEM brain drain. In the time of COVID, its most well-known returning scientist has been Dominican priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist who is working to develop a yeast-based vaccine against the coronavirus that is affordable and can be taken orally.

If the effort bears fruit, it could turn Father Nic into a billionaire like Raul Destura. But the priest has told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” that any commercial profits will go to the Dominican Order and the Church.

What are the perks of being a balik-scientist? The program, in place for decades, offers a research grant of up to three years, duty-free importation of equipment for R&D and round-trip airfare. In 2018, a law added incentives including medical insurance, a monthly housing allowance and state assistance for the scientist’s children to attend their preferred schools.

Some scientists who have not left the country believe the money is better used to encourage interest in STEM among Filipinos from an early age.

Under the current circumstances, both initiatives deserve to be pursued.

DOST

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