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The science behind why Filipinos suck at science

A Pinay astrophysicist talks about the dearth of scientists in the Philippines and what we can do to encourage young minds to go into science

When you hear the word “science,” you might think of that subject in school with the complicated equations on a blackboard that only a super genius can solve, or an image of Einstein, pensive and wise, or Newton’s falling apple. These are all fine associations, but they miss a crucial aspect of what science is—the human aspect, the scientist herself.

You probably know a medical doctor, or someone training to become one—he or she may be a friend or a relative—or you may be one yourself! But how many of you would know a doctor of philosophy—a Ph.D. degree holder—in science, or someone in such a program, training to become a scientist? Or how many times have you met or talked to a Filipino astronomer, a geneticist, botanist, geoscientist, nanoscientist, space engineer, or actuary? Chances are, you’ve not or, if you’re so lucky, once. Still, they exist. There are scientists such as those in the country.fhg

I’m one of them (nice to meet you!) but there are not too many of us, and not all of us are publicly visible, preferring to work in the background. Compared to other countries, scientists in the Philippines are not too many. And maybe it is as expected. It’s a numbers game, after all. Most of the science being done in the world today—perhaps, not surprisingly—happens in rich, industrialized countries, where millions of professional scientists and engineers are employed by government institutions, universities, and private corporations to practice their craft. Here, there are relatively fewer opportunities for scientists.

UNESCO has a metric for the number of R&D (research and development) researchers a country has per million people in its population. The ratio is in the thousands for the rich nations, while it is in the hundreds or below for the rest of the world. For Japan, for example, the ratio is around 5,000, which translates to around half a million R&D researchers working in the country (undoubtedly including a number of Filipinos!). There are no official numbers for the Philippines, but we can make some estimates: a ratio of 100 translates to around 10,000 R&D researchers, and a ratio of 10 translates to around 1,000 of us. For comparison, estimates place the number of (medical) doctors in the country at around 100,000. So it is a hundred or so times more likely for you to know one of them than one of us.

And yet, I wonder, will the demand for scientists increase when the number of people going into science also increases? In the Philippines, science is not as popular as say liberal arts, or fine arts, or even business and commerce. It is not the kind of course in college that you’d fight tooth and nail for a slot in. Some courses are even offered in just a couple of schools. Most Filipinos see science as “difficult,” something that only super humans understand. And it does not help that the scientists we know of are the Einsteins and Newtons of the world who, for the large part, do not seem to be from this world. For most Filipinos, they’d live to a hundred without ever meeting a nanoscientist or an astrophysicist, or any of those high-falutin’-hoity-toity-job-titles. Others do not even think of science in terms of a career, thinking that it is for a chosen few—gene selection done right from birth—and not something that one can work on or train for at a university.

I used to be one of them. When I was in grade school, I was fascinated by space, like many kids that age. I read voraciously about the planets, the Big Bang, and black holes. I excelled in Math and Science classes. At various times, I wanted to become a lawyer (like our close family friend), an architect (like my older cousin), and a businesswoman (like my mom). Yet, I never aspired to become a scientist despite my interests. In hindsight, I realize it was not because I didn’t want to be one, but simply because I was not aware that I could be one, or that anyone could be, for that matter. We are social creatures and, consciously or not, we look to other people in society, especially within our close social circles, for things that will define ourselves and our aspirations. We look to others—our role models—for the possibilities.

I was lucky to find role models in high school who made me realize that I, too, can become a scientist. And now that I am a scientist myself and in a position to influence others, I know what I should do. The challenge now for Filipino scientists like me is to reach out to as many young would-be scientists out there—those who love the stars and the planets, those who are fascinated with our genes and how we become who we are, those who know more about Newton than the apple— and open up their minds to the possibilities of a life in science.

The good news is, even if you’re not a scientist, you can spread the word far and wide, too: Filipino scientists and engineers exist. And you know what? We are even going to space with our very own satellite! With everyone’s help, we can build a society that will embrace and support a future generation of space scientists and engineers who will take us further. So, let the skyserye begin now!

Reinabelle Reyes, Ph.D. is one of only three astrophysicists in the Philippines. She teaches astrophysics to undergraduate and graduate students at Ateneo de Manila University and Rizal Technological University. She obtained her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Princeton University, where she led a study that confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on a cosmic scale. (DR. Reinabelle Reyes)

  • SS

    “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” This was the attitude of the great American statesman, John Adams at the birth of the United States.

    In the 19th century, the Gentleman or Lady scientist, generally was not employed as a professional researcher. This was a pursuit. Something one did for one’s own sake — an expression of intellectual passion. It was also a luxury — open strictly to those of means.

    The 20th century brought us the scientific age along with scientific war and Big Science as it is currently practiced in the developed world.

    There is one school of thought which says that war stimulates man’s competitive and creative energies to the highest levels. All modern scientific and developed societies have waged war. The Philippines has not. Perhaps it is only when the Philippines determines to develop its own capabilities, including capabilities of self defense, that it will find it necessary to raise scientists and develop the habits, techniques and per-requisites for scientific endeavor.

    There must be a sincere desire to advance the human condition. Satisfaction with the status quo is the enemy. Also, those societies who do best with science are those who focus even down to the level of the individual skilled laborer on quality and detail.

    I have observed that you must learn to pour a perfectly flat cement floor before you can hope to build a chip fabrication plant.