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A time for science

“The heart of innovation is challenging the status quo.”

What a beautiful soundbite from Dr. Raul Destura, who led the development of the Philippines’ own COVID-19 testing kit—the very invention that is now making our coronavirus testing much faster, cheaper, and more accessible.

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Dr. Destura and his team from the University of the Philippines are among the R&D trailblazers who are defying the culture of vagueness and lethargy that has clouded our coronavirus response so far. While the public waited for clarity and evidence of readiness from government officials, our extremely underappreciated science and technology sector has been hard at work outside the spotlight, fostering technologies that are needed and usable by Filipinos.

The locally made coronavirus detection kit, for example, emerged from UP’s National Institutes of Health, a research center we rarely hear about in the news, if at all. We also seldom hear about the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), which is funding the test kits and helping its rollout by the thousands.

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This couldn’t have come at a better time. Just this Monday, it was revealed during a Senate inquiry that the country only had 2,000 test kits left on hand. This unsurprisingly caused an outcry, considering that 2,000 is an infinitesimal number against the 100-million Filipino population.

On the same day, though, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it has allowed the use of the UP-NIH test kits. Science Secretary Fortunato de la Peña stated that each test kit will cost only P1,320, about six times more affordable than the foreign counterpart priced at P8,500. He further said that 1,000 of these local test kits will be deployed this week, 2,000 next week, and 3,000 the week after that.

Outside of coronavirus R&D, there are many other technologies produced or refined by our local scientists that now benefit us or will in the near future. The DOST partners with institutions across the country to develop scientific enhancements in various fields, including health and nutrition, agriculture, transportation, energy, and disaster preparedness.

Their outputs are no charade, either. Last year, for instance, we saw the inauguration of the first Filipino hybrid electric train, which the agency turned over to the Philippine National Railways. This year, one of the 20 new technologies being rolled out with the DOST is an antidengue herbal drug touted as “the first definitive treatment” for the disease. It was developed with the De La Salle University Health Sciences Institute as one of the partners. Clinical trials are ongoing, with hopes for commercialization before the year ends.

With technologies like these, local innovation is proving indispensable to Filipinos, and our science and tech sector deserves more support. It’s dismaying that year after year, our scientists have to call out for increased budgets, better infrastructure, and a more enabling regulatory environment. The DOST itself suffered a P79.85-million budget cut for this year, despite its many valuable projects and outputs in previous years.

At the same time, public awareness, appreciation, and adoption of local S&T still fall short. If the current “infodemic” is any indication, too many Filipinos are still quicker to believe in neighborhood hearsay and unsubstantiated Facebook claims than to actually listen to science-based updates.

While this says so much about the population’s information literacy, it also points to a gap in science communication. Effective science writing and reporting are crucial if we are to promote Filipino S&T. Science communicators in the country have seemed too afraid of “dumbing down” their work that their message often flew over their audiences’ heads. But recent tools such as data visualization, infographics, and social media dissemination make it easier to convey information effectively without having to depart from the actual science behind it.

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Filipino scientists deserve these forms of support, but beyond that, we owe it to ourselves to finally pay attention to how science and technology translates in our local context. It’s not just about Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and the rockets at Nasa. It’s just as much about the warning systems of Phivolcs, Project Noah of Pagasa, and the lifesaving work of Dr. Fe del Mundo, Dr. Perla Santos Ocampo, Dr. Raul Destura, and numerous others like them.

It’s long overdue, but now is a most fitting time to recognize—and embrace—their gifts to us.

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[email protected]

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TAGS: Dr. Raul Destura, electric train, Science
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