Friday, October 14, 2011

Nationalist science and an invitation to readers

Dr Jose Rizal in his subversive Brindis speech honouring the Filipino painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo in Madrid's Hotel Ingles started the nationalist agenda in advancing the highest expressions of Filipino art and science. Dr Rizal's point is that these expressions no longer belong the the land that nurtured them but to the world and for the good of the world. The highest achievements of the human species cannot be limited to one nation alone.

Perhaps the most famous line in this toast was "genius knows no country, genius blossoms everywhere, genius is light the light, the air, it is the heritage of all-cosmopolitan, like space, like life and like God". It has been long demonstrated that the arts can serve an ideological and nationalist purpose and yet be a major contribution to world culture. The world will be a poorer place without for instance Beethoven's 9th Symphony (which has been made the Anthem of Europe). The question is "Can Filipino science serve a nationalist agenda and yet be a major contribution to scientific excellence worldwide?"

Dr Rizal would have understood what I meant. As I have posited in other essays on Rizal and Science, Rizal's chapter "The Class in Physics" in El Filibusterismo, where he presents his philosophy of science in the characters of Placido Penitente and the friar-professor, Padre Millon. Rizal is definitely an empiricist valuing the use of experiment and analysis in explaining natural phenomena. But Rizal was prophetic in writing this chapter since almost everything he described on the state of science education in the late 19th century Spanish colonial Philippines remains largely true today. American colonization gave the nation a more secular and a formal science bureaucracy which could have powered us to national industrialization had the Japanese invasion in 1941 not destroyed much of the science infrastructure and killed many of the leading scientists. Ironically, Japanese imperialist emphasis on Asian nationalism saw a research oriented Filipino science policy whose aim was to alleviate the hardships brought upon by the war.

There is a need to do historical research on the development of Philippine science and this will help answer why despite the foundations provided by the Spanish Dominicans, Augustinian and Jesuit fathers, and American colonial government science infrastructure,  and billions of dollars and yen in science development aid by the Americans and the Japanese paying for war damage, we have never advanced despite promising starts. Historians will probably get a lot of documentary information from the American era Philippine Journal of Science. One may note the changes in science policy in the scientific papers published here from the early period of American sovereignty to the Commonwealth and then to independence and after. The PJS was one of the leading journals of its kind in Asia and in the world. The Commonwealth science policy focused on indigenous medical and agricultural technologies. That World War II severely affected Philippine science is that the first issue of PJS after the war carried death notices of Filipino scientists killed by the Japanese and one of them has a street named after him in UP Diliman. After World War II, the PJS reflected the newly independent republic's science policy which continued some of the Commonwealth's priorities but later replaced by science driven by Cold War geopolitical realities.

The postwar policies appeared to be less focused than that of the Commonwealth. We did not pursue research that would have given us the technological capacity to produce high value products since we did not invest in strengthening the basic sciences in partnership with the applied sciences. This is something defeated Japan did (under American encouragement) and by the 1960s, Japan was producing its first electronic gadgets and cars. Japan's aim was to build up its economy for national survival. But even in this period of economic recovery where applied science was given priority, the Japanese never neglected the basic sciences and even in this period Japan produced its Nobel laureates in the Sciences, one of which if I am not wrong, trained as a resident physician in the pre-war UP PGH!

This leads us to where Filipino science should go. The Arroyo administration to its credit had a focused science policy which is evidenced by its multi-billion peso investment in the National Science Complex in UP Diliman. However the infrastructure while needed in producing an enabling environment for the training of science students, will not be of much value if we have a lack of young scientists to aggressively mentor future scientists and to get them published. We should encourage them to stay like what President Manuel Quezon did when a UP science professor was kicked out of his department due to political infighting.

Quezon: What do you plan to do when you leave the university?
Prof: Your Excellency, I can always put up a barber shop. I've heard they were profitable.
Quezon: Puneta! A holder of a doctor of Philosophy and to become a barber! Eso es ridiculo!
Tell Bocobo [UP President] to see me!

The question is where to get published. They can get published in the so called ISI journals of high quality or in local journals. There is an impression that local journals are not credible, a charge that is not without basis. However this is really based on the poor state of our scientists who don't publish themselves. This is something Professor Flor Lacanilao has endlessly pontificated about!

The local journals must be supported and this is part of the nationalist agenda since the  journals published by foreign publishing houses now charge outrageous access and subscription fees leading  librarians to go on revolt by cutting subscriptions and favouring open access. But if a scientist has to publish in open access, he/she has to contribute a fee normally in the 500-1000 US dollar range. This is untenable in the Philippines where scientist/academic salaries are often less than the fee! Also if Filipino scientists expect their students to read scientific journals, they can only do it through university facilities but can the universities afford to shell out 65% of more of their annual operational budget on the best journal access subscriptions? This is where free access comes in and our local science journals should be funded for the time being to provide this important service with the proviso they are up to international standards.

Thus the first agenda for nationalist science is to ensure our young scientists are mentored well and published well. This will lead to more exposure and partnerships with other scientists all over the world. I will discuss the other aspects next time.

And nationalist science like Dr Rizal envisaged knows no country.

I would like to invite readers to attend the Rizal, our heroes and Science symposium on November 28, 2011, Monday from 1-4 PM at the National Science Complex in UP Diliman. Keep posted for details on this blog site.

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