09:29 PM July 11th, 2013

By: Rina Jimenez-David, July 11th, 2013 09:29 PM

HE DOESN’T look anything like a wild-eyed visionary, and in fact speaks in a low-key manner, so much so that one strains to hear him above the clink of plates and glasses and Filipiniana music softly wafting through the sound system.

But if one buys into the visions painted by Mario Montejo, secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, the future looks bright indeed. Not just that—maybe even shimmering, splendid, hopeful, cheerful.

Imagine a tomorrow in which traffic woes in the metropolis—the current favorite topic of commentators and social critics—have been eased with the widespread use of “road trains,” which are nothing but up to five interconnected coaches traveling on rubber tires (like linked buses) and powered by a hybrid diesel-electric system. The road train boasts of wide, fully air-conditioned interiors that can carry up to 120 passengers per coach, with the entire system accommodating up to 650,000 passenger trips per day.

Complementing the LRT and MRT overhead trains, the road train can seemingly move people swiftly around Metro Manila, harnessing, says Montejo, “trains’ effectiveness in moving people, and applying this principle to road transport.” And unlike in other cities where trams or cable cars, powered by electricity transmitted through overhead cables, carry people around, the proposed road train will not need any new and expensive major infrastructure, and will require, at best, a “dedicated” lane on Edsa and bus stops.

But Montejo is not forgetting the trains altogether. Last year, he announced a partnership with the Philippine National Railways to retrofit 40 idle trains donated by the Japanese government, with DOST engineers remodeling the coach bodies and overhauling their power systems to reactivate the trains and make them suited for PNR’s existing tracks.

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At the same time, the DOST is leading the test-run of the “Automated Guideway Transit” or AGT, what the DOST has dubbed as the “first Filipino-developed train,” with a prototype in the University of the Philippines Diliman “being developed into a fully-automated or driverless people-mover” in coordination with UP experts. Depending on the results of the scheduled AGT test-runs in Diliman, the full-size regular version planned for Bicutan in Taguig (near the DOST head offices) will be completed by yearend.

From easing our traffic woes (presuming the Department of Transportation and Communications, Metro Manila Development Authority and local governments get on board), Montejo has also turned his sights on dealing with dengue, a disease caused by a virus transmitted by two types of mosquitoes that afflict thousands and killed 172 just this year.

One of the basic steps in dengue control has been “vector surveillance,” identifying “dengue hotspots” where the dengue-bearing mosquitoes proliferate. To measure the prevalence of dengue mosquitoes, the DOST has developed the ovicidal-larvicidal (OL) traps and dengue-alert website to enable public health workers “to monitor trends and potential dengue outbreaks for proper action by communities and government officials, from the barangay to policymaking levels.”

The DOST plans to integrate the dengue-alert website with the “Project NOAH” platform which gives information on approaching weather disturbances and possible disaster and risk areas. The website “arms people with information on the need to destroy mosquito breeding grounds in their areas or, on a personal level, to use mosquito repellents and nets.”

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During our dinner with Montejo, he distributed samples of the OL traps, which are nothing but black plastic glasses (“mosquitoes are especially attracted to the color black,” he explains) in which herbal pellets are mixed with water, with a strip of  lawanit  or a type of plyboard left to stand in the water. When the mosquitoes lay their eggs on the  lawanit strip, the herbal mixture will kill the eggs and larvae. Some of these traps, says Montejo, are on sale in commercial drug stores.

In our homes and gardens, the OL traps can prevent dengue-carrying mosquitoes from proliferating. In schools and other public areas, the traps serve as monitoring aids, with monitors reporting (by text) to the DOST the number of traps that contain mosquito eggs and larvae and alerting local authorities to a possible dengue outbreak.

But it isn’t just traffic, transportation solutions, disaster preparedness and a public health problem like dengue that preoccupy the DOST head. Just as important to him, Montejo says, is the human resource component, recognizing the need “to provide opportunities for poor but talented and deserving students who may later contribute to socioeconomic development.” To secure a pool of weather forecasters and specialists, especially important in this era of climate change and increasing weather disturbances, the DOST has developed a BS Meteorology Scholarship Program, as well as scholarship programs for science and engineering graduate courses.

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Montejo even plans to reach out to youths not just in Metro Manila but around the country, disclosing plans to establish some 15 regional science high schools duplicating the Philippine Science High School, which falls under the authority of the DOST.

To encourage local scientists, Montejo has also spearheaded the creation of “Tuklas Lunas Centers” to encourage researchers to produce medicines from indigenous sources “to provide quality yet inexpensive drugs to consumers and generate livelihood opportunities in the countryside.”

So there you go. From overhead trains to road trains, scholarships for budding scientists, disaster mitigation and mosquito traps—nothing, it seems, is too big or too small for the DOST to study and find a solution for.

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