Monday, January 21, 2008

Where are the engineers and scientists?

A letter to the Inquirer's editor by Flor Lacanilao, a retired professor of marine science at the University of the Philippines, has this to say:

"The rapid growth of China is not surprising because so many Chinese leaders are scientists and engineers by training,” a science publication noted in its Dec. 7, 2007 editorial. Whereas in our country, even leading officials of the National Research Council of the Philippines, National Academy of Science and Technology, and the Department of Science and Technology have been mostly nonscientists.

The problem, however, is that our present scientists and engineers are just not interested in government or anything else outside the confines of their own narrow professional field. If scientists/engineers are not heading the National Research Council or the Department of Science and Technology, they only have themselves to blame if you ask me.

In a democracy where the ultimate arbiter in the allocation of resources are the people, power and position are to be fought for; they cannot be expected to be handed down to our scientists by an all-knowing central committee. If scientists and engineers want to head agencies or occupy public office, they must first offer themselves in the public sphere, declare themselves available so to speak by engaging in the conversation of governance.

Most of our scientists, however, are too condescending to bother themselves with such mundane things as explaining themselves to the people. For instance, during a heated public dispute at the DENR with regard to a particular set of emission tests, one senior scientist, a vice-president of a national professional organization, haughtily declared she wouldn't want to talk with the opposing panel because she would be talking "way above their heads." Even the great Richard Feynman took the trouble of explaining science to the masses.

Our scientists and engineers are now marginalized because they are uncomfortable in a democratic setting where their ideas have to be argued and vetted publicly, and judged by people whom they consider are their intellectual inferiors. I once heard Sen. Pimentel complaining that one of the reasons why the government is not supporting local science is that when scientists come to the Senate to promote their projects, they are incomprehensible - plus, they dress and look weird.

As long as our scientists don't address this handicap, we will never see more of the likes of Engr. Bayani Fernando or Dr. Juan Flavier in the public sphere.


sky said...

I think that's just the tip of the iceberg at the least, or barking at the wrong tree at the most.

Look at the science and technology parks mushrooming outside of Manila--we are the young and idealistic engineers there. But there comes a point when we realize that there is just no opportunity for us here in the Philippines; that's the reason why most of us go to nearby Singapore or Malaysia. We have patents, we have technical papers, but these go into the portfolio of our MNC employers, not to the nation.

We want to set up our own firms that reflect our competencies and experiences but the environment is stifling (although in UP there's a technology business incubator--a flicker of hope we want to see shine in the nearest possible time because technology changes fast). The result, most of us become complacent, get our retirement pay and set up internet shops or bakeries or as I've said before, go abroad and sometimes migrate.

We have a lot of financially-feasible ideas, like those in DOST's ITDI but they won't launch due to politicking or there's just not enough funds.

I think just because we dress weird doesn't mean that we shouldn't get an audience with the government. There has to be a middle ground where the two parties can understand each other. Now if there's somebody scientifically and technologically inclined in the legislative body (and not just by diploma) then I think there's a solution.

Ronnel Lim said...

My only wish is that scientists should come down from their ivory towers at UP and have more political and civic involvement.

Many important issues now being deliberated in the country revolve around the use of science and technology: GMO in agriculture, ZTE broadband, etc. But scientists don't have the proportionate voice you might expect to come from them.

When the ZTE scandal for example broke out, it was the UP School of Economics, not the College of Science, that registered its strong opposition.

Our scientists are timid and sometimes jealous of the attention other people get. When Al Gore, for example, came to the Philippines to talk about global warming, some Filipino scientists dismissed him as a mere civilian who does not really know what he is talking about. If you ask me, Al Gore may not be an expert but at least he is doing his best to understand science and save the world in the face of the timidity of most scientists.

Y. Riskas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Y. Riskas said...

Hi Ronnel, you have a point here, but you missed pointing out that government positions are dependent on backers, the whole palakasan system of hiring. That is if the positions are not for sale, which is the worst thing I've ever heard.

Y. Riskas said...

Of course, I'm not saying all people in government got their positions in a foul way, but for scientists, merely hearing about it is already a turnoff. It's government that should clean its house first, I think.

Ronnel Lim said...

But the "government" will never clean itself. People have to dirty themselves by joining the government as Father Panlilio has dirtied himself when he ran.

Ronnel Lim said...

There's an instructive anecdote i read somewhere. When Kenmnedy was running for president and Nixon was using dirty tactics, the advisers of Kennedy said "No, we are not going to stoop down to the level of Nixon's tactics. We are going to conduct ourselves with impeccable honor and if we lose the election then so be it."

Kennedy was said to have replied, " Wouldn't that be pride?"