The government has been encouraging Filipino scientists, who are working or living abroad, to return to the country as Balik Scientists for a limited period to serve the country through their respective expertise in research and development (R&D). But many of them are opting to stay and serve in the country longer, if not for good. Should they be called “stay scientists”?
The Filipino scientists are motivated to return in order to contribute and help improve the country’s capacity in science, technology and innovation (STI) in several sectors, including health, agro-industry, energy and economy.
Through the Balik Scientist Program (BSP) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Undersecretary for R&D Leah Buendia highlighted its importance in addressing the country’s brain drain, or the departure of educated and skilled professionals for better opportunities abroad.
“The return of the scientists is a big help to lessen the country’s brain drain,” Buendia said during the recent Talakayang HeaRT Beat that was held by the DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD).
The scientists are given the opportunity to collaborate with experts and researchers both local and foreign, which the DOST told the BusinessMirror, is “an important step toward the development of the health sector in the country.”
Three Balik Scientists involved in health shared their experiences and current projects during the virtual Talakayang HeaRT Beat news conference.
The Balik Scientists in health
From the National University of Singapore, Dr. Anna Karen Laserna specializes in analytical science and is now an Academic Service Faculty at De La Salle University.
During her engagement with BSP, Laserna helped establish the De La Salle University-Central Instrumentation Facility that led to its becoming a Center of Research in Metabolomics, and a partner institution of the DOST-PCHRD in the Tuklas Lunas Program.
Director of National Telehealth Center, Dr. Raymond Francis Sarmiento received his training in biomedical and health informatics from the United States National Institutes of Health and in Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sarmiento developed a technical proposal about telemedicine protocols and systems, developed a new Newborn Hearing Screening module, and was the mind behind the vaccine certificate.
Dr. Neil Thomas Pascual, an S&T Fellow at DOST-Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, was from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
As a Balik Scientist, Pascual is heading the establishment of the Nuclear Medicine Research Development and Innovation Center, and the development of the Nuclear Medicine Research Agenda.
‘Still more to be done’
The future of health R&D looks promising with these Balik Scientists’ contributions.
Looking into the larger picture, Sarmiento said in Filipino: “There’s still more to be done.”
He shared that progress and advancement vary between the country he was trained in and in the Philippines, adding that Balik Scientists must think about how they could help advance or improve the current state of the Philippines’ R&D instead of saying “we’re still at this level.”
“It is not to say that we’re behind [other countries], but if it’s a timeline, we [the Philippines and other countries] have different levels of maturity,” he said.
Sarmiento proposed a “targeted recruitment” by identifying which areas in the health sector need more push so that the people already in that field would have like-minded individuals to support each other and expedite the process.
Laserna lamented the oft-repeated experience of Balik Scientists of delayed acquisition of reagents, chemicals and equipment for research that is “something that has to be addressed.”
“We can ask for help from other government agencies on what we could do,” she suggested.
Future plans; staying longer, permanently
The three scientists intend to “stay in the country longer” in order to impart what they have learned, foster collaboration, create a lasting impact in the health sector and focus on their projects.
This led the forum moderator, Dr. Ruby Anne King, to tag them as “stay scientists.”
The BSP provides limited short-, medium- and long-term tenures, which are good for six-month, one-year or three-year periods, with a package of benefits. This means that staying scientists would receive their commensurate remunerations.
Pascual said he would be staying longer, or even permanently, to improve research in the area of cyclotron, radiopharmaceuticals for cancer management, and research collaboration to initiate research in nuclear medicine.
With the aim to improve cancer imaging in the Philippines, Pascual said that if the Nuclear Medicine Research Agenda were approved, “it would open doors for scientists in nuclear medicine and for the next generation.”
Laserna, meanwhile, is planning “to continue the work of capacitating our students and researchers, in terms of analytical science and metabolomics,” while also developing courses and modules on how to make use of analytical instruments as well as using “omics” technologies like in studying colorectal cancer.
Omics are areas of study of molecular process within an organism. These iinclude proteomics, genomics, metabolomics, lipidomics and epigenomics, which correspond to analyses of proteins, RNA, genes, metabolites, lipids, and methylated DNA, among others.
Sarmiento, as director of the National Telehealth Center, is working toward developing the implementation of national registries to hasten the processing of results of newborn hearing screening.
He is also working on a mental health application that is natural language processing-aided.
“Overall, the goal of the Philippines is to make sure that digital health becomes a facilitator in terms of achieving the successful implementation of Universal Health Care,” Sarmiento said.
BSP from 1975 to 2018
The Balik Scientist Act (Republic Act 11035) was enacted in 2018 to institutionalize and “to strengthen the [S&T] human resources” to reverse the effect of brain drain, accelerate the flow of technologies and promote knowledge sharing.
The returning scientists are involved in training local scientists and researchers, R&D and technology transfer.
The BSP, through Presidential Decree 819, was originally established in October 1975. It was revitalized in 2007, with the necessary policies and funding support.
Image credits: Talakayang HeaRT Beat