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How to break PH’s technology freeze

Translating concepts into real products in the field of natural science research involves creativity, which is a proactive skill that, under ideal conditions, can be learned at will, and employs actual materials, tools and processes.

In a Third World context, however, a researcher learns creativity through a reactive process proportional to the availability of equipment and reagents/materials in the workplace. In this respect, ill-equipped labs cannot expect to actualize the essence of creativity—the conversion of ideas into tangible or observable realities. While not all creative output are innovative, all innovations are products of creativity.

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The Philippine R&D (research and development) expenditure is one of the lowest in the region and in the world, when expenditures are ranked according to per capita or percentage of gross domestic product. Among Asean countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are spending more for R&D than we are.

While the Philippines improved in the 2019 Global Innovation Index report (now fifth from sixth place among Asean countries, and globally at 54th from 73rd place last year), the report still noted weaknesses in, among others, global R&D companies and scientific and technical articles, the latter being generally related to intellectual property development.

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With the recent signing of the Philippine Innovation Act and the Innovation Startup Act, we can expect some improvements in the lot of our underserved science sector. Our undergraduates are usually dissuaded against research careers due to scanty employment opportunities, disproportionate remuneration and the high cost of graduate education. Only few local universities and health care institutions have world-class research facilities. Many research institutions have not yet transitioned to updated technologies, and most are struggling with outmoded or incomplete facilities and equipment.

Lab conditions reflect the limited numbers of R&D projects eligible for institutional funding, which adversely affects local training opportunities for aspiring researchers. Rarely do local original research articles appear in high-impact peer-reviewed international journals, and less than 10 percent of total patent applications are generated by local inventors.

Underlying all these is a pervasive government mindset that grossly underestimates the upside potential and burgeoning requirements of innovative R&D, leading to stunted technologies and low-value research output.

To fast-track innovation efforts, the following steps may need to be prioritized under the implementing rules and regulations of the above-mentioned laws:

1. Substantially increase the number of competitive government scholarships for MSc/Ph.D. programs to drastically increase the size of our professional science workforce.

2. Allocate a respectable annual science fund as grant-in-aid specifically for development of intellectual properties in both private and government research institutions; identify and establish new research centers with significant potential for
value creation, and expand and improve existing ones.

3. Promote extensive R&D cross-linkages between private corporations and the academia/government as a means to spawn high-impact consumer and industrial products, create new jobs in industries and generate new revenue sources.

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4. Provide scientists with a portfolio of highly competitive benefits to attract quality personnel.

It is worth noting that Japan registered an intellectual property trade surplus of $13.6 billion for the first half of 2018 alone. This is an offshoot of Japan’s business model of wealth creation through innovation since the 1990s, which annually pumps massive resources toward developing intellectual properties.

Obviously, we cannot hope to be at parity with Japan in terms of R&D investment, but we take courage from knowing that big economies invariably have small beginnings. Ramping up investment in intellectual properties now will hopefully empower us to gradually break free from the technology freeze that has gripped us for the longest time.

Faustino C. Icatlo Jr. holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tokyo, is a former Japan-based corporate senior research scientist, and an inventor of an active molecule in a commercialized health care product based on his discovery of a novel bacterial enzyme function.

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