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Editorial

What research can do

/ 05:00 AM October 13, 2019

Sen. Cynthia Villar minced no words castigating the Department of Agriculture (DA) last week during a hearing on the proposed budget of the department. The chair of the Senate committee on agriculture, food and agrarian reform was particularly bothered by what she felt was the excessive attention being paid by the DA to research, specifically the P150 million — or 12.5 percent — of its P1.2-billion proposed budget for the National Corn Program.

“Bakit lahat ng budget puro research? Baliw na baliw kayo sa research. Aanhin n’yo ba ’yung research? (Why is most of the budget for research? You are crazy over research. What will you do with research?)” Villar asked. “Ako matalino akong tao pero hindi ko maintindihan yung research n’yo, lalo na ’yung farmer. Gusto ba nung farmer ’yung research? Hindi ba gusto nila tulungan n’yo sila?” (I am a smart person but I do not understand your research, what more the farmer. Do farmers like research? Don’t they want help?)”

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What’s the use of research? That was a bewildering question to ask.

Agriculture is, first of all, a science, and to be viable and sustainable, the practice of it must depend on facts, data, scientific observation.

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Diwata-1 and 2, the homegrown Philippine microsatellites that were the product of dogged research and innovation by Filipino scientists, are now helping farmers and fishermen through their monitoring of weather and environmental conditions, among other benefits.

Likewise, not for nothing is there an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world’s premier research organization on rice science, which the Philippines hosts and which has been credited for major scientific breakthroughs in rice farming and food security.

The Los Baños, Laguna-based institute has helped train about 50,000 students, researchers, farmers and other agricultural professionals from around the world since it was established in 1960 — among them experts from India, Thailand and Vietnam, now the world’s Top 3 exporters of rice.

Alas, the Philippines, an agricultural country with about 30 million hectares, nearly half of which are agricultural lands, is now the second-largest global importer after China, with almost 3 MT of rice imports as of June — a far cry from being self-sufficient in rice despite IRRI’s presence in its midst.

How did this happen? While there are many factors behind this distressing development, it goes without saying that the country’s lack of sustained support for research and development (R&D), exemplified by the indifferent or hostile attitude of politicians and policymakers toward allocating resources for it unlike in other countries that invest billions of dollars in such programs, have contributed to the sorry state of science, technology and innovation in the country.

According to Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) senior research fellow Jose Ramon Albert in a statement in October last year, “We are spending 0.2 percent of the gross domestic product on R&D which is way below the suggested international standard of 1 percent.”

What can research do?

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Filipino science-centric online news and features portal FlipScience answered Villar’s question with an illustrative story on Facebook: In 1961, a study coauthored by a Filipino scientist looked into how a disease called Southern corn leaf blight affected a number of crops in the corn fields of UP Los Baños. That scientist, Dr. Ricardo M. Lantican, and his team found out that the affected plants had something in common: the T-cytoplasm trait. But it was only almost a decade later, in 1970, that the value of the study was recognized when hybrid corn in the United States containing T-cytoplasm was infected with a fungus that laid to waste 15 percent of that country’s corn crop, resulting in almost $1 billion losses.

“It was at that moment when the US — and the world — realized that Dr. Lantican and his colleagues were already on to the problem way before it became a minidisaster,” wrote FlipScience. The happy ending: “Farmers’ livelihoods were saved and the world dodged a corn crisis, simply because Dr. Lantican and his colleagues were crazy about research.”

So, yes — research works, research is important, research is central to agriculture, food security and virtually all other fields that seek to generate benefits, productivity and cost-effectiveness from human activity by eliminating wasteful guesswork and conjecture. (That covers lawmaking and policymaking, by the way.) It is, in fact, one area the country needs to be more “baliw” (obsessed) about, not less.

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TAGS: Cynthia Villar, department of agriculture, Inquirer editorial, National Corn Product, researcher
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