How do you make science and technology an attractive career option for students?
Making S&T fun and making it pay, preferably well.
The new secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) wants entrepreneurship lessons to be included in the curriculum of the country’s young scientists.
We know DOST chief Renato Solidum better as an expert on volcanoes and earthquakes. The work looks fun and exciting – the stuff of blockbuster movies.
But in this country, his profession is not seen as a ticket to the kind of riches that members of Congress and the judiciary, local government leaders and many top officials of the national government are perceived to do almost as soon as they take office. .
Pursuing a career in S&T, engineering and mathematics or STEM also requires high-quality education—something that has become a luxury for millions of Filipinos.
Solidum is undisturbed. He wants DOST to provide more support to S&T start-ups, from accessing funding for research and development to patenting and marketing inventions. Assistance may include support for the implementation of R&D results to improve operations and productivity across the socio-economic spectrum, as well as for national security purposes.
Israel, which has one of the largest per capita shares of Nobel Prizes in the sciences, has one of the most impressive innovation ecosystems in the world. Israeli innovators have not only made a lot of money from their inventions and ideas, but they have also made their country one of the most prosperous and competitive in the world, and fully capable of defending itself in a hostile neighborhood.
A few years ago I attended an international innovation conference in Tel Aviv. Almost all the Israeli innovators pitching their startups and ideas that I met were no older than 40 years old. Many of them were in their 20s, but were already setting up companies, with the help of state funding, for the commercial dissemination of their products or services.
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In our case, there are graduates of science courses who became billionaires and who can serve as models. Jollibee’s Tony Tan Caktiong is a chemical engineering graduate of the University of Santo Tomas. Rolando Hortaleza graduated from medicine, but switched to R&D and produced the best-selling Extraderm and Skin White exfoliants of Splash Corp. beauty products. and HBC, which made him a billionaire. He has since sold the company and moved on to the Barrio Fiesta spice brand. Mercury Drug President and CEO Vivian Que-Azcona is a pharmacy graduate also from UST. She took over from her father Mariano Que, who founded in 1945 what became the largest pharmacy chain in the country.
Recently, internal medicine and infectious disease specialist Raul Destura should have made his first billion by developing the first and only rapid test in place of the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction in the country, at a much lower price than commercially available RT-PCR. Doctor Destura founded Manila HealthTek Inc., which specializes in molecular diagnostics, biotechnology products and services.
Last May, while the country was preoccupied with general elections, MTek launched a new subsidiary, GenAmplify Technologies Inc. GTI will manufacture and distribute diagnostic test kits for communicable and non-communicable diseases, including dengue and African swine fever.
Israel, which is said to have around 4,000 start-ups this year, is also said to have the world’s highest per capita number of “unicorns” – private start-ups reaching a valuation of over $1 billion.
So yes, Juan and Juana, science and technology can be hugely profitable – and you can help people and country in the process.
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There is an Israel Innovation Authority, which describes itself as “an independent and impartial public entity” responsible for the Jewish state’s innovation policy. He states: “Innovation is by far the most valuable resource for the State of Israel, serving as a national asset essential to economic prosperity.”
It offers tools and programs “for early-stage entrepreneurs, mature companies developing new products or manufacturing processes, academic groups looking to transfer their ideas to the market, multinational corporations interested in Israeli technology, Israeli companies looking for markets new abroad and traditional factories and plants looking to incorporate innovative and advanced manufacturing into their businesses.”
Becoming a “startup nation” like Israel requires significant investment in R&D. Israel and South Korea are constantly vying for the honor of allocating the largest share of GDP to R&D, both at nearly 5 percent—more than double the global average of 2.4 percent.
In contrast, the share of R&D to GDP in the Philippines is approximately 0.1 percent, lower than the 1 percent suggested by UNESCO for developing countries.
In real dollar terms, the US remains the world’s largest R&D spender, followed by China and Japan.
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Will Solidum find the necessary political support to significantly increase spending on science and technology and allow its push for entrepreneurial training alongside S&T?
China understands the importance of innovation and has attracted its scientists from around the world with attractive incentives.
In our case, our S&T sectors, including the weather office – the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration – suffered from a serious brain drain for many years. Solidum says the problem at PAGASA has been addressed.
We have a modest “Balik-Scientist” program to stop the STEM brain drain. In the time of COVID, its best-known returned scientist has been the Dominican priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist who is working to develop a yeast-based vaccine against the coronavirus that is affordable and can be taken orally.
If the effort bears fruit, it could turn Father Nic into a billionaire like Raul Destura. But the priest has told us on One News’ The Chiefs that any commercial profits will go to the Dominican Order and the Church.
What are the benefits of being a balik scientist? The decades-old program offers a research grant of up to three years, duty-free importation of R&D equipment and round-trip airfare. In 2018, a law added incentives including medical insurance, a monthly housing allowance and state aid for the scientist’s children to attend their preferred schools.
Some scientists who have not left the country believe the money is better used to foster interest in STEM among Filipinos from a young age.
In the current circumstances, both initiatives deserve to be pursued.