Addressing science’s ‘image problem’
It’s no exaggeration to say that science—and allied fields like engineering and technology—in this country suffer from an “image problem.”
As early as the elementary years, children imbibe negative attitudes toward science, arithmetic or math, and any subject that requires rigor of thought and attitude. Early on, many schoolchildren develop a “phobia” of numbers, facts and logic. Or at least a fear of being seen as too competent in these fields and thus turning off peers. The problem worsens with age, as children transition into adolescents and find that being too adept at science and math is apt to earn them unsavory and isolating labels like “geeks,” “dorks” and “weirdos.” Is it any wonder, then, that majority of college students in this country prefer what are seen as “safe” courses over the more difficult science and engineering tracks?
This might seem as just an amusing cultural and social commentary, were it not for the fact that our lack of scientists and engineers has a huge impact on the country’s level of development and prospects for a brighter future.
Columnist Cielito Habito, writing last month on the lack of engineers here, compiled statistics on how the Philippines compares with its neighbors in terms of the number of engineering graduates each year. Vietnam, for instance, which has a slightly smaller population size as us, “produces 105 engineering graduates a year per 100,000 population,” while the Philippines produces less than 50. We do no better than other Asean nations: 53 for Indonesia, 87 for Thailand, 175 for Malaysia, and around 200 for Singapore. South Korea, noted Habito, produces 287 engineering graduates per 100,000 population, while Japan produces 132, and the United States, 73.
And worse, added the former Neda (National Economic and Development Authority) chief, “among all countries mentioned, we produce the least engineering graduates every year in proportion to our population, with only half of them actually passing the licensure exams to become full-fledged engineers.”
Timely, then, was the signing early this week by President Duterte of Republic Act No. 11312, which seeks to strengthen the Magna Carta for scientists, engineers, researchers and other science and technology workers.
Among the main features of the new law is a policy ensuring that science and technology personnel “who have more workload than scientists and researchers” will be given fair compensation. The act also amends the old law by forbidding companies and agencies from capping the compensation of science and technology workers not directly working for the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
The measure also allows government agencies to rehire science and technology workers who possess technical qualifications and are capable of undertaking specific research activities. It also allows the extended employment of scientists due for compulsory retirement for a period of up to five years, if they are involved in priority research and development programs of the DOST.
All these, of course, are partly in response to the present shortage of qualified STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) practitioners, while the educational system rachets up efforts to increase the number of students and graduates in the field, and while government and private employers also do their part by making the field more attractive to young people and more rewarding.
Still, this would not materialize unless the cultural setting for a STEM-conscious society were not radically altered. Habito, for one, noted how newspapers often run the results of bar exams on their front pages while virtually ignoring the results of licensure exams for scientists and engineers, who are, in the scheme of things, more important to economic development than another new batch of lawyers.
Perhaps purveyors of popular entertainment could also be convinced to change the image of science- and engineering-inclined youth in their productions, cutting down on the ridicule aimed at many of them, and addressing the general antiscience attitude of the audience.
We make fun of scientists, and/or neglect them, at the expense of our own future and our attempts to find solutions to the country’s urgent practical problems.
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