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Bring Filipino scientists home

06:20 AM October 18, 2018

Last week I wrote a column about engineers and scientists, and how these unrecognized heroes have transformed our lives.

Here at home, promoting science, technology and the creative arts is part of President Duterte’s 10-point socioeconomic agenda. His economic team believes that science and technology (S&T) graduates can not only improve our lives and help the government achieve its goal of making economic growth inclusive, but also bring the Philippines into the modern world. And they’re right — but I don’t see enough being done to achieve it.

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So I am glad that Mr. Duterte has signed into law the Balik Scientist Act. The law grants incentives to Filipino S&T workers and encourages them to return to the Philippines.

Maybe this law will help. It institutionalizes a program that was actually established in 1975 (the coincidental year I arrived here), which has served as a tool for the strengthening of the country’s scientific and technological human resources. Balik Scientists have been instrumental in providing solutions to national concerns, especially in areas where there are limited experts residing in the country.

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The Balik Scientist law institutionalizes the incentives program provided to returning Filipino S&T professionals. Hopefully, the benefits the law provides will encourage more Filipino S&T professionals to work in the country and share their technological know-how.

Among the lawmakers who pushed for the bill’s passage is Sen. Grace Poe. Citing data from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), she noted that “brain drain” or outbound S&T workers surged from 9,877 in 1998 to 24,502 in 2009. It has undoubtedly gotten worse since then.

The Philippines has only 189 scientists per million Filipinos, half the recommended figure of 380 scientists per million persons by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). We are way behind South Korea and the United States, which have 5,300 and 3,500 scientists per million, respectively. It’s why these countries are the world’s leaders in invention and innovation, and a reason we’re so far behind. Even comparable Malaysia has 2,000 scientists per million.

On top of that, the Philippines’ research and development (R&D) allocation is the lowest in the region. It spends a mere 0.14 percent of its GDP on research and development, way below the Unesco-recommended 1 percent of GDP. Singapore allots 2 percent of its annual GDP to R&D, Malaysia 1.1 percent, Thailand 0.4 percent, and Vietnam 0.2 percent. The Philippines is last again.

The budget for scientific R&D must simply grow substantially if the Philippines is to be competitive in the new technological world.

Under the new law, returning scientists will be engaged for short-term, medium-term or long-term programs to be administered by the DOST. For short-term programs with a duration of 15 days up to six months, benefits include grants-in-aid for research and development projects, and donation of instruments and materials related to their scientific activities. It also covers round-trip airfare, reimbursement of excess baggage costs, relocation costs and a tax-exempt daily allowance.

Local private and public institutions seeking technical assistance from foreign-based Filipino experts may also apply for DOST assistance through the program. Filipino scientists who will enroll under medium-term (six to 12 months) and long-term (one to three years) programs will also receive these incentives.

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According to the measure, grantees can participate in grants-in-aid R&D projects of the DOST with an initial lump sum research subsidy of P500,000 for a short-term program, P500,000 to P2 million for a medium-term program, and P2 million for a long-term program.

It’s a good law, but it’s far from enough. Not only do we have to get our scientists back, we also have to get far more Filipinos into college to start a career in science and engineering. But it all needs to be adequately funded by the government. Congress needs to increase the budget, not cut it. And the DOST needs to learn how to use the money better, to ensure that R&D is prioritized and the budget for it fully spent.

E-mail: wallace_likeitis@wbf.ph

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TAGS: Balik Scientist Act, Department of Science and Technology, DOST, Filipino scientists, incentives for scientists, Like It Is, Peter Wallace, Rodrigo Duterte, science and technology
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