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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • JL

    The case is actually simple. If you happen to come across a common Filipino student who’s graduating high school and you ask them what they want to do after finishing college, the answer would most likely be that they want to help their parents. Nothing bad in that, but that also means that a significant portion of our youth only has helping their parents as the main inspiration for finishing school. Hell, I never heard of anyone saying I wish to go to college to learn and satiate my hunger for knowledge. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen a good number of science students (both applied and pure) from the university I came from who only enrolled in their respective courses to gain a bachelor’s degree and somehow land a job somewhere (preferably abroad) regardless whether or not the job is science related.

    We can’t really blame them, the grip of poverty in our country is suffocating to the extent that it strangles even the very fabric of our society whereby we become a people who exists to merely earn a living and dream of eternal relaxation and luxuries in life. Still, it’s no excuse. As a people we must transcend through our weaknesses. Otherwise we’ll be stuck here forever.

    On another note, I also believe it has something to do with our mentality as a whole, look at how we treat Ms. Universe (regardless if the Philippines wins or not) or any other pageant. Nothing bad in that too, but do we give the same level of excitement to the nobel prizes for the sciences? I seriously doubt.

    In college I’ve learned that in any sound development strategy, research should be the number 1 priority. Thus, the state has to step up its science and technology funding. We don’t need to match how much other richer countries spend, what we need are dedicated and patriotic educators and researchers who would take up the cudgels to plant a solid foundation of interest and curiosity for the sciences to the minds of our youth. We will match lack of funding with sheer creativity and ingeniousness.Let me be clear though, there must be a basic reliable infrastructure before creativity and ingeniousness can take place.

    There’s no single solution to this problem, but we could start with simple yet high impact ones. For starters, we need to have a higher qualification for our teachers. We cannot mold minds if the molders themselves are incapable of the art of molding. By higher qualification I mean a harder board exam, a higher college entrance test score requirement (on par with engineering requirements in state universities), a higher academic grade requirement for those enrolling in education (high school academic grade). In exchange we should reward higher quality educators with higher salaries. We should also modify the salary grading system of our teachers, it should be that parallel remuneration can be expected regardless of function or position. This way we can avoid wasting good educators to administrative positions.

    It is my belief that our special science classes or schools funded by the state should be reserved only for those who are most likely to end up as scientists, mathematicians, or engineers (When I say engineer I mean the thinking type, not the signature only type).

    • Xchan

      put the politicians in minimum wage and see how these things will change fast

    • floresco halogi

      It is a proven fact that when the requirements for food and shelter and security has been satisfied that the person can start becoming creative. In simple terms, when people don’t have to struggle to find food to eat and a place to live with security then it frees their mind to have time to be creative. When the HUNTER-GATHERER discovered agriculture they found out that they dont have to gather food everyday. They could schedule time for leisure and creativity. That is how they found their “AHA!!” moment. The only science most filipinos are very good at is the science of survival.

  • Royce Bendix Ramos

    DOST has always struggled to keep funded by central government. It might be time to look to the private sector for more support for our research and tech. Even PAGASA has to fight to keep their Magna Carta benefits, an agency that is instrumental in the battle called early detection of hurricanes. Meanwhile, a budget of P500million pesos is given to a 4-day event to promote Catholicism in Cebu( where there is less chance of picketing from doubters). The truth is, if Japan did not give us so much aid for our DOST and other technological agencies, we might not even have come this far (DIWATA). I say it’s time to press private companies for more active sponsorships in the name of Science.

    • Val V.

      The reality is that a career in science in the Philippines is not that lucrative given the effort that the student has to go through in pursuing science. Science (Physics+Chemistry+Math) is difficult. What is the risk-reward ratio? This is the reality.

      DOST has had lots of science scholars. But, case in point, how many Philippine Science HS graduates have pursued a career in science? Unfortunately, most of the science scholars (who finish on time) either end up pursuing careers that are not related to science, or if they’re really, really good in research, find suitable positions outside of the country. It is not simply because other labs or industries abroad pay well—but more-so
      because scientists look for continued growth (in terms of their
      expertise); they look for more scientific challenges. Science is Global. Scientists need to publish. There there is great a danger of becoming stunted in research when a scientist does not have good and competent collaborators and partners, not to mention funding, to work with. This is not always the case, but it is highly likely to happen.

      In any case, this is a very complex issue. It is good to encourage people to take up science, but our society needs to be more nurturing (e.g. jobs and opportunities).

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

    • Jay Lateron

      In reality, you don’t need PAGASA at all. What you need is a good internet and/or TV connection and access to The Weather Channel. America and some other countries have the satellites in space and the technology already working, so all this country needs to do is watch the TV and report what REAL scientists put on TV for free.

  • Menchie

    A science career is rarely presented as an attractive option. And the ‘wonder’ that should come out of learning it is often replaced by a desire to just get it over and done with? If very few students in science high schools actually pursue science careers, it is not a surprise what the statistics for regular schools will be.