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At Large
Speaking out for science

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:10:00 01/05/2010

Filed Under: Elections, Politics, Science (general)

NOW ON LEAVE from his post as station manager of dzMM, the AM radio station of ABS-CBN, Angelo Palmones is making the rounds of the country, talking to civic groups, students, teachers, communities, politicians, scientists, researchers, and anyone who cares to listen, about the need to instill a ?consciousness about science and technology? among our people.

Palmones is the president and first nominee of the party-list group Agham, the Filipino word for science, which also stands for Alyansa ng mga Grupong Haligi ng Agham at Teknolohiya para sa Mamamayan Inc. (Alliance of Groups Supporting Science and Technology for the People).

Agham, says Palmones, was inspired by the rueful observations of the late Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan who was at the time head of Phivolcs or the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Punongbayan was then in the eye of a political and media maelstrom when he revealed that the Valley Fault System, which runs from Marikina, Quezon City, and points south up to Tagaytay, was due for some movement ?sometime soon.? Punongbayan stressed the need for local and national governments to begin disaster preparedness measures to minimize the loss of lives and damage to property.

But aside from sensationalistic but short-lived media coverage and political grandstanding on the part of local executives in places in the path of the fault system, ?no serious advocacy was pursued,? observes Palmones. This was when Punongbayan realized that ?we need to move to a different level,? meaning the science and technology community should try to enter the field of legislative advocacy to pursue their programs and push for both political and budgetary support for them.

In fact, Punongbayan, who by then had achieved national renown for his astute handling of the crises posed by both the Northern Luzon earthquake and Pinatubo eruption, was supposed to be the first nominee of Agham in its first electoral outing. But Punongbayan perished in a helicopter crash in 2003, and was replaced by Dr. Emil Javier as Agham?s first nominee in the 2007 campaign. Agham didn?t make it then, but Palmones is making sure that a broader base of members and supporters will sweep Agham to the halls of Congress.

* * *

?I USE ?Ondoy? and ?Pepeng? as an entry point,? explains the broadcaster when asked how he attracts audiences to pay attention to such a ?boring? subject as science and technology.

?I tell people that while it is good news that most of the victims of these destructive weather disturbances have recovered, the bad news is that storms similar to Ondoy and Pepeng will surely happen again.?

There is no doubt that the Philippines has been and is being affected by climate change, says Palmones. But what communities should do is to understand just what the risks are and together work out solutions to save as many lives as possible when disasters do strike. But first, he adds, people must put value on scientific information and pay heed to scientists when they issue warnings.

?As a people, we react with our emotions,? Palmones observes. A scientific, rational mindset is ?not within the consciousness of the Filipino.?

* * *

WHILE he blames politicians for being ?reactive? and for not putting enough emphasis on research and development through policies and budgets, Palmones is no less harsh in his criticisms of colleagues in the media.

He is annoyed greatly, for instance, by the use of terms that to him ?make no sense? but which have entered the lexicon of news. One is ?faulty electrical wiring,? commonly attributed by firefighters and reporters alike as the most common cause of fires. ?No electrician in his right mind would install faulty electrical wiring; if the wiring is faulty, it would not work at all, or else a fire would break out the minute you switch on a light,? he points out. The correct term is ?system overload,? Palmones says, a term which also helps educate homeowners about the correct use of electrical outlets.

Then there is the matter of media arrogance, due in large part to ignorance. ?Do you notice, for instance, how the media react when Pagasa forecasts a typhoon and it fails to arrive or is much weaker than forecast?? asks Palmones. The work of our meteorologists, he points out, is to track weather disturbances and issue warnings of their impending arrival, but it is up to local and national authorities to decide whether to cancel classes or work or mobilize rescue teams.

* * *

BECAUSE of climate change, says Palmones, our country requires more scientists to track the changes taking place not just in our weather systems but also in our sea levels, ground stability, the survival of our diverse flora and fauna, the vulnerability of entire communities, cities, provinces and regions.

And yet, because of a lack of emphasis on and investment in science and technology education, fields like marine science, meteorology and even volcanology have been neglected, and the few experts that we have remain underpaid, overworked and ignored.

The situation is disheartening, says Palmones, because Agham believes that ?science is the backbone of a developing economy.? Neighboring countries, he points out, had decades ago decided that investment in scientific research and technological development was necessary if their countries were to leap-frog into developed country status. ?They steered their young people into scientific courses and made facilities available so that scientists could do research,? Palmones points out.

Indeed, one of the planks in Agham?s legislative platform is to encourage much larger government investments in science and technology, beginning with science and mathematics education.

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