Pinay scientist wants next president to prioritize research

- Dulce Sanchez () - April 29, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - For biochemist Lourdes Cruz, who became the first Filipina to receive the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science last month, the recognition means that women scientists in the country can stand toe-to-toe with their colleagues in other parts of the world despite the lack of government support.

“It shows that we can do it. We have many competent scientists, but many are leaving. They do work elsewhere,”  said the National Scientist, who recently retired from teaching at the University of the Philippines College of Science in Diliman.

Cruz bested about 1,000 other nominees from around the world for the prestigious award, wherein the 18-member panel of judges was headed by the 1999 Nobel Prize winner for  Medicine, Günter Blobel of Germany. 

She lamented that so far, none of the candidates running for president in the May 10 polls appears committed to giving priority to helping scientists or scientific research in the country.

Science and Technology Secretary Estrella Alabastro said the award – given by French cosmetics firm L’Oreal and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to recognize women researchers who have contributed to scientific progress – means that “anyone, even when facilities and support are not adequate, can do a lot.”

Small change

Cruz said scientific research in the country has steadily improved despite the government investing in science and technology an amount equivalent to a miniscule .15 to .2 percent of the Philippines’ “very small” gross national product.

“Thailand spends one percent of its budget on science and technology, while Taiwan and Singapore invests more than this because they realize science and technology are needed for development,” she pointed out.

Cruz added that the investment increased from .15 to .2 percent only because the scientists lobbied for it, with the help of Sen. Edgardo Angara.

Cruz said that primarily, scientists need access to scientific literature, which they can only get by subscribing to international journals at the cost of at least P20 million per year. “That’s very little, compared to what is spent on government projects,” she said.

With this amount, scientists can already conduct their “due diligence” research, which means that before they propose a research project, they can already find out what has been previously researched by scientists in other countries. “This means we don’t waste money doing what has already been done,” Cruz said.

She said that to propel scientific progress in the Philippines, the government needs to develop a culture of science among Filipinos, and that means starting with the teachers. According to Cruz, teachers must teach children “how to observe, how to be curious, how to plan to answer the questions they have.” She frowns on science contests that force children to do projects that are beyond their skill level, and “the parents end up doing them.”

Cruz proposes the establishment of science camps and science apprenticeships to “encourage children to do independent work, without help from their parents.”

She said that in evaluating science reports and projects, science teachers should work hand in hand with English teachers to improve students’ skills in documenting their observations and accomplishments.

Cruz said that teachers should also be given more incentives, such as financial support to attend workshops, by local governments.

The lack of government support is felt even in the country’s premier schools of science. At the Philippine Science High School, where the students are government scholars, the faculty room has not been repaired since being destroyed by a fire a year ago. The school gym, declared unsafe over a year ago, has also not  been upgraded.

Lab coats for housedresses

Cruz said the prize focuses on women scientists based on the perception that women scientists are getting shortchanged in terms of recognition, promotion and opportunities.

“But in the Philippines, the problem is not as much. We are more matriarchal,” she said.

Cruz said that when she monitored the graduates of the University of the Philippines’ College of Science, around 61 percent of them are women. “But when you look at the performers later on, the Outstanding Young Scientists (OSY), the members of the National Academy of Scientists (NAST), the percentage of women is much smaller,” she said.

Among the OSYs, less than 30 percent are women, she said. The NAST, whose membership is by invitation, currently has 43 men and 18 women scientists in its roster, according to NAST executive director Luningning Samarita.

“The data shows that although more women graduate with a science degree, only a few pursue a career in science. This is where encouragement is needed because the training of the women scientists would go to waste,” Cruz said.

She suggests that women scientists be allowed to join research projects or work in the laboratory part-time, “just so they can continue their career. When the children are in school, they can go back to their careers full time.”

Cruz also said there should be “research appointments” in the academe, which means that rather than teaching, scientists can concentrate on research and draw their salary from grants set up for this purpose. She added that the government should have an “active recruitment” to encourage more women to pursue careers in science.

Cruz said many women scientists put their career on hold to have a family, and it is often hard to pick up where they left off. Cruz, 67, is single. She said if she had married, she would not have been able to research the medical applications for the venom of fish-hunting Conus snails, which had her spending half the year at the University of Utah from 1976 to 2004.

The L’Oreal-UNESCO award recognizes Cruz’s contribution to the use of toxins in the Conus snail venom as biochemical probes to examine the activities of the human brain. Her research, which she did in collaboration with Dr. Baldomero Olivera, has resulted in the development of ziconotide, a new type of painkiller (marketed under the brand name Prialt). Another toxin, conantukin (so named because of its calming effect on lab animals), is being studied for its potential to be an anti-epileptic drug.

Alabastro said Cruz has “a lot of involvement” in various projects. Cruz runs the Rural Livelihood Incubator program, which she established in 2001, to use science and technology to help Aetas, women, farmers and fisherfolk in Morong, Bataan.

Through the program, Cruz said they were able to produce a booklet on plants used by Aetas for their traditional cures. “It was co-authored by two taxonomists and two Aetas. We want to show that you just don’t get data from the Aetas. They should be included as authors because they were the ones with the intellectual input,” she said.

Cruz said she also had a social scientist teach the Aetas about the indigenous people’s rights law.

With the $100,000 prize she received from L’Oreal and UNESCO, she bought a 1.3-hectare plot of land where she plans to put up a livelihood training center and a plant nursery to help reforest the Aetas’ ancestral domain.

Another project Cruz is working on is setting up a group composed of local scientists to do more work on the medical applications of the venom of the Conus snails. “Our collaborators are abroad,” she said, adding that she already has a team of six scientists, half of them women.

 She said they have a lot of work on their hands: each Conus snail variety has a different type of venom, and the venom has up to 200 active agents, each with a different effect. There are at least 200 species in the Philippines alone, and only 30 have been studied, Cruz said.

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