Careers in Science |

How to make science and technology an attractive career option for students?

By making S&T fun and making it pay off, preferably well.

The new secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology (DOST) wants entrepreneurship lessons to be included in the curriculum of budding scientists in the country.

We know DOST chief Renato Solidum more 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 wealth that members of Congress and the judiciary, local government leaders and many senior officials of the national government are perceived to have acquired almost as soon as they take office.

Pursuing a career in science and technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, also requires a high-quality education—something that has become a luxury for millions of Filipinos.

Solidum doesn’t hold back. He wants the DOST to provide more support for science and technology start-ups, from access to funding for research and development to patenting and marketing inventions. Assistance may include support for the application of research and development results to improve operations and productivity across the socio-economic spectrum, as well as for national security purposes.

Israel, which has one of the highest per capita shares of Nobel Prizes in science, 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 presenting their startups and ideas that I met were no older than 40 years old. Many of them were 20 years old, but they were already setting up companies with the help of government funding for the commercial deployment of their products or services.

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In our case, there are science course graduates who have become billionaires and who can serve as role models. Jollibee’s Tony Tan Kaktiong graduated from the University of Santo Tomas in Chemical Engineering. Rolando Hortaleza graduated in medicine but switched to research and development and produced Splash Corp’s best-selling exfoliant Extraderm and Skin White. and HBC cosmetics, making him a billionaire. He has since sold the company and switched to the Barrio Fiesta spice brand. Mercury Drug President and CEO Vivian Ke-Azcona graduated in pharmacy from UST as well. She took over from her father, Mariano Cue, who founded in 1945 the largest chain of pharmacies in the country.

Most recently, internal medicine and infectious disease specialist Raul Destura is said to have earned his first billion from developing the country’s first and only rapid reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RTC) COVID test at a much lower cost than the commercially available RT- PCR. Dr. Destura founded Manila HealthTek Inc., which specializes in molecular diagnostics, biotech products and services.

Last May, while the country was busy 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 reported to have around 4,000 startups this year, is also said to have the world’s highest per capita number of “unicorns” — private startups that reach valuations of more than $1 billion.

So yes, Juan and Juana, science and technology can be extremely profitable – and you can help people and country in the process.

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There is the Israel Innovation Authority, which describes itself as an “independent and impartial public body” responsible for the innovation policy of the Jewish state. He stated, “Innovation is the most valuable resource for the State of Israel, serving as a national asset critical to economic prosperity.”

It offers tools and programs “for early-stage entrepreneurs, mature companies developing new products or production processes, academic groups seeking to transfer their ideas to the market, multinational corporations interested in Israeli technology, Israeli companies seeking new markets abroad, and traditional factories and enterprises seeking to incorporate innovative and advanced manufacturing into their business.”

Becoming a “start-up nation” like Israel requires significant investment in research and development. Israel and South Korea are constantly vying for the honor of devoting the largest share of GDP to research and development, both at nearly 5 percent—more than double the world average of 2.4 percent.

In contrast, the share of research and development to GDP in the Philippines is approximately 0.1 percent, less than the one percent suggested by UNESCO for developing countries.

In real dollars, 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 will its push for entrepreneurship training alongside S&T be allowed?

China understands the importance of innovation and is luring back its scientists from around the world with attractive incentives.

In our case, our S&T sectors, including the Bureau of Meteorology – the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration – suffered from a serious brain drain for many years. Solidum says the issue at PAGASA has been resolved.

We have a modest “Balik-Scientist” program to stop the STEM brain drain. During COVID, the most famous returning scholar is Dominican priest Fr. Nicanor Austriko, a molecular biologist working to develop a yeast-based coronavirus vaccine that is affordable and can be taken orally.

If the effort pays off, it could turn Father Nick into a billionaire like Raoul Destura. But the priest told us on One News’ The Chiefs that all commercial profits will go to the Dominican Order and the church.

What are the benefits of being a balik scholar? The decades-old program offers a research grant for up to three years, duty-free importation of research and development equipment and round-trip airfare. In 2018, a law added incentives, including medical insurance, a monthly housing allowance and government assistance for the scholar’s children to attend the schools of their choice.

Some scientists who have not left the country believe the money is better used to encourage interest in STEM among Filipinos from an early age.

Under the current circumstances, both initiatives deserve to be continued.

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