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State of S&T

The atmosphere was much like that in an amusement park: festive, with lots of people, mostly younger ones breaking out in laughter, small crowds gathering at some of the booths, many others taking selfies.

But this wasn’t an amusement park. It was the SMX Convention Center and the event was the annual Department of Science and Technology (DOST) exhibit, with this year’s theme of “Science Nation.”

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The exhibit is held to mark National Science and Technology Week, and I will admit that the first time I was invited to attend, I thought of how a government official had scoffed about these exhibits being limited to “showing off” nata de coco.

When I visited last year, mainly to fulfill my obligation as a University of the Philippines official, I did find nata de coco but, in addition, there were exhibits from nearly every field in science, showing off some pretty impressive accomplishments, including sophisticated medical equipment and a light plane, all developed locally.

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I told the organizers last year that the exhibit should go beyond a week, maybe even going to different areas nationwide to raise people’s awareness of the state of S&T in the country. But they explained this would entail too much time and expense on the part of the DOST staff.

This year I got to visit on Tuesday, on the last day of National Science and Technology Week. That morning I was working on my column, which was about President Aquino’s State of the Nation Address, one which I felt did not give enough credit to his own administration’s accomplishments in S&T. There was acknowledgement of Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo, “who did much to bring hope back to Pagasa, and indeed worked hard to make us feel the role of science in national development,” but he could have bragged about how many more accomplishments there were, many showcased in the ongoing DOST exhibit.

Youth-friendly

After my visit, I’m even more convinced that we need to have more S&T exhibits all over the country. Sure, we have the Mind Museum in Taguig—and I hope it can expand its exhibits—but what happens to young people living outside Metro Manila?

I had brought my 9-year-old son to the exhibit, partly to gauge how youth-friendly it was. My son is the hardest person to impress, and I anticipated he’d whine about wanting to go home after an hour, max. We ended up staying three-and-a-half hours, with me having to practically extricate him from an electric car built by UP engineering students. Even after that, he bargained for a few more minutes to put together a mini-guitar—part of another UP exhibit explaining how music and engineering students are collaborating to find the best kinds of wood to make local guitars.

When we finally got out, he just had to complain one more time: “Didn’t you promise me we would get to ride the

hybrid bus?” It was the first display we saw when we entered the convention center, but one had to sign up for a demonstration ride and there just wasn’t enough time.

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All throughout our stay I kept emphasizing that these technologies were developed locally, by Filipino scientists. It’s important to emphasize “local” because it is in the area of S&T where we tend to have the strongest inferiority complex. It’s a vicious cycle when we begin to believe we’re not capable of manufacturing anything of significance, and when we do something local, we don’t buy it.

Science exhibits have to go beyond, well, exhibits, in the old sense of something to look at. The younger generation is multisensorial, needing not only to see but also to hear, smell (my son just had to sniff the piña threads used to make fabrics, asking why they didn’t smell like pineapple), taste and touch.

People need to discover science, too, by taking things—and nature—apart. When I look at babies and how they explore the world, I think of them almost as a subspecies, Homo curiosus, with the sapiens part—wisdom—hopefully to follow.

Unfortunately, in a consumer society like our own, especially with a weak S&T sector, the curiosity is diverted to consumerism, buying gadgets lured by lights and sounds rather than technology. Or worse, the curiosity is squandered on a voyeuristic interest in celebrities.

Thrilling science

S&T helps young people recognize that they can do things, that they can build, and transform their situation. Instead of attributing disasters to acts of a vengeful and destructive god to be placated through prayers, they can be empowered by science to recognize how they can predict these phenomena, and find ways to minimize damage to life and property. Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa (There’s God’s mercy, and there are humans, doing something).

Yes, amusement parks do provide a model for bringing out the thrill in science. At the DOST exhibit there was a “shake cart” so people could experience what it’s like during an earthquake. Nearby one could simulate a tsunami by cranking a wheel. (I had to pull away my son, who was creating more than a tsunami.)

In his last Sona, the President talked about how hope had been restored in Pagasa, the national weather bureau. There’s much more here, in a huge DOST Noah (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) project involving UP to map out Philippine rivers and waterways, as well as coastal areas, so flooding, storm surges and tsunami can be monitored and predicted.

Interactive exhibits are especially important when it comes to information S&T, which probably has the greatest potential for Filipino S&T development. A few seconds after my son saw the hybrid bus, he lost interest and ran toward a booth showing locally developed games. After some coaching, he was playing Face Mountain on an iPad with little

effort. I watched, more fascinated by how much programming went into the game.

Nearby there were booths exhibiting other information technologies, combinations of sensors fed into computer software to monitor traffic, flooding, household and community energy consumption.

I just have to get back to this point about nata de coco, which reflects a condescension toward not just local S&T but also agriculture. Young people need to learn to appreciate agriculture as a vital science, the key to food security in the country. I was gratified to see crowds of young people at the agriculture exhibit. The biggest crowd-drawer was one on cacao, offering, of course, free tasting, with some of the students asking why it was bitter.

At least, I thought, we’ll have students realizing that chocolates come from plants. And I hoped they had visited a nearby booth showcasing varieties of peanuts including one called Namnama (Ilokano for “heart”), with a subvariety called Asha (hope)… and a three-nut peanut from Luna, Apayao.

I keep emphasizing young people here because Philippine S&T today is driven by young people. The most exciting booths were those put up by universities. UP wasn’t the only one with a car; the University of Santo Tomas had one run by ethanol. Both cars won prizes in Shell’s Eco Marathon.

The future of a Science Nation is with young Filipino scientists.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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