DOST: Advancing science, technology agenda best option for PHL growth

IN a recent meeting with members of the Makati Business Club and several foreign chambers of commerce, the government’s chief scientist Fortunato dela Peña encouraged local and foreign businessmen to invest in technology-related enterprises. Dela Peña, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), said this is relevant as the government is now investing heavily in science and technology.

The chief scientist cited advancement in health and medicine development with the county’s numerous traditional medicinal herbs as focus, education, energy, disaster resiliency, and climate-change adaptation, including enterprises that deal with creativity such as designs.

A civil servant for two decades now holding various teaching and civil-service positions up to his appointment as top official of the DOST under the present administration, Dela Peña said that for a time, the country seemed to have grown “resistant” to science- and technology-related endeavors, although a core number of advocates persisted in pushing the science agenda.

The progressive minds seemed to have prevailed, the DOST official said.

Recently, the Philippines ranked 73rd out of 128 economies in terms of Science and Technology and Innovation (STI) index, citing the country’s strength in research and commercialization of STI ideas. The report also said that 60 percent of companies in the country offer training to improve the technical skill of their employees.

Investment

HOWEVER, a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies highlighted the weak ties between innovation-driven firms and the government, and it also identified the country’s low expenditure in research and development (R&D).

According to Dela Peña, this is the reason the government is now extending all its efforts to reach out with the private sector, explaining that STI plays an important role in economic and social progress and is a key driver for a long-term growth of an economy.

Technology adoption, the official said, allows a country’s firms and citizens to benefit from innovations created in other countries, and allows it to catch up and even leap-frog obsolete technologies.

This can lead to significant improvements in productivity for existing firms in agriculture, industry and services.

For one, long-term investments in building local capacity for technology generation can lead to innovations that will give local firms a competitive advantage. This can result in the creation of new firms and even entirely new industries.

For another, the local medicine sector has been showing potential, the DOST official said, citing the case of two dozen local herbs or medicinal plants being studied as one example.

Lagundi

WHEN asked about the case of Lagundi (Vitex negundo), whose efficacy as medicine is being challenged by drug manufacturers, DOST Assistant Secretary for International Cooperation Leah J. Buendia said that the shrub was subjected to 20 years of stringent clinical trials and has been proven consistently as effective.

“But since the DOST, and the government for that matter, is not into commercialization, private companies are the ones who manufacture the component of the medicinal plant into commercially available medicines,” Buendia said, adding that the agency only gives the results which include the right formula and volume of the medicinal component.

Asked on the possibility that private manufacturers might knowingly dilute the required strength for the medicine to be effective to cut cost and unwittingly made the medicine commercially available ineffective, the official declined to comment.

She, however, assured that the private sector is working with the agency for the purpose of commercializing discoveries made and studied by the DOST in partnership with the private sector, as these “products would not help private companies profit but advance the country’s agenda.”

The science agenda that, despite advances, is still in need of prioritization and more funding. This agenda is in the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, which devotes an entire chapter on STI.

STI culture

RECENT positive developments and advancement in science and technology notwithstanding, there remains a low level of innovation in the country. This is brought by weaknesses in STI human capital, low R&D expenditure and weak linkages in the STI ecosystem.

In the Global Innovation Index (GII) Report last year, the Philippines ranked 74th among 128 economies in terms of overall innovation, garnering a score of 31.8 out of 100. This is a slight improvement from the score of 31.1, ranking 83rd out of 141 economies in 2015.

The country also ranked fifth out of seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that were included in the survey. The Philippines was ahead of Cambodia (95th) and Indonesia (88th) but lagged behind Singapore (6th), Malaysia (35th), Thailand (52nd) and Vietnam (59th).

The factors behind the weak performance of the STI sector include a weak STI culture, Dela Peña said.

There is lack of public awareness and interest in STI and many sectors do not recognize, appreciate and understand the use of technology- and science-based information in their daily activities.

There’s also a number of weaknesses in social and professional culture, i.e., research culture in universities, commercialization of results from public research, among others. According to Dela Peña, a lack of awareness on intellectual property rights, in the research community and the general public, still persists.

Despite its availability, adoption and application of technologies among micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and sectors like agriculture and fisheries remains low, he added.

Research

LOW government and private spending on STI is another factor behind the weak performance of the STI sector, according to the GII report.

Investments in R&D are central for enhancing the country’s innovation ecosystem, the report said. Expenditures on R&D and innovation activities, as well as the support given to the development of human resources in various fields of science and technology (S&T), are the parameters scrutinized in the monitoring and evaluation of STI.

While nominal R&D expenditures increased by 80 percent to P15.92 billion in 2013, the proportion of R&D spending to GDP stood at only 0.14 percent. This is substantially below the 1-percent benchmark recommended by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and the global average of 2.04 percent. It is also low compared to other Asean countries, such as Vietnam, 0.19 percent, Thailand with 0.36 percent, Malaysia with 1.09 and Singapore’s 2.0 percent. The data is available online from Unesco’s Institute for Statistics.

The country’s relatively low ranking in the GII Report was pulled down by weaknesses in human capital and R&D, with a score of 22.7 out of 100, ranking 95th. This is due to the low public and private expenditures on education and R&D, as well as low tertiary inbound mobility. Tertiary inbound mobility refers to the number of students from abroad studying in a given country, as a percentage of the total tertiary or college enrollment.

The bulk of the R&D spending, about 60 percent, comes from the public sector. These were directed to agricultural and industrial production and technology, protection and improvement of human health, control and care of the environment, among others. Most of the R&D activities in the country are still concentrated in the National Capital Region, Calabarzon and Central Luzon.

Manpower

ANOTHER indicator measuring the capacity for technology generation is the number of S&T human resources engaged in R&D.

As of 2013, the country has a total of 36,517 R&D personnel, of which 26,495 are key researchers, scientific, technological and engineering personnel engaged in R&D; the rest are technicians and support personnel.

The figures denote that there are only 270 researchers for every one million Filipinos. Such ratio falls short of the Unesco norm of 380 per million population and the 1,020 researchers per million population average across developing economies of East Asia and the Pacific.

Of the total researchers in the country from the government, higher educational institutions (HEIs) and private nonprofit sectors, 14 percent had doctoral degrees (PhD), 38 percent had master’s degrees, while 34 percent had Bachelor of Science (BS) up to post-BS degrees. The low number of researchers in the country reflects the propensity of the educational system in the country to produce graduates outside of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or Stem, programs—the disciplines where R&D flourishes. Nevertheless, the latest GII report indicates that in terms of graduates in science and engineering, the country garnered a score of 25.5 out of 100, ranking 26th.

Capital

AN assessment of the country’s innovation system conducted by a program of the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) reveals that the supply of Stem graduates exceeds local demand.

As a result, there is an out-migration and, worse, underemployment of many skilled, locally trained scientists and engineers. The report by the Usaid’s Science, Technology, Research and Innovation for Development, or Stride, program also cited a shortage in training for fields critical for innovation, particularly in information technology. Such shortage contributes to the challenge that many local companies face, especially in securing employees with the skills required to grow the business.

This somewhat explains the nature of brain drain the country has. It is not so much because of Filipinos not being “nationalistic” but simply because there is limited opportunity for people of science to stay in the country.

However, Buendia said the issue of nationalism has some credence, if not the absolute answer, citing the case of South Korea in the 1950s.

When South Korea was in its lowest in terms of economic level, the government called on all its scientists and engineers scattered around the world to go home and help build their economy, and many responded, she said.

According to Buendia, this brain drain contributes to the problem as potential researchers, scientists and engineers, the key actors for the innovation ecosystem to flourish, prefer to seek employment overseas due to better economic opportunities and potential for advancement. Since knowledge and technology are mostly embodied in human resources, this emphasizes the urgency to accelerate the development of R&D human resource.

Patents

THE output of R&D is commonly measured in terms of patents applied and granted to Filipino residents.

However, reports show that many universities do not have the expertise to market their patent portfolios for commercial use. Furthermore, technology generators face persisting issues on technology ownership while researchers are constrained by the “publish or perish” phenomenon.

This results in the weak technology transfer system in the country.

An annual average of 209 patent utility models and 597 industrial design applications were filed from 2005 to 2015. In the same period, an annual average of 54 patents, 446 utility models and 502 industrial designs were granted.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked the Philippines 86th out of 128 economies for the number of patents filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty per million population. Invention patents granted to local inventors represent the smallest share in number of intellectual properties granted from 2001 to 2003. Industrial design and utility models consistently comprise the majority of the intellectual property granted.

The country also needs to catch up in research publications since the number of scientific publication in peer-reviewed journals per million population stands at 55, substantially below that of Asean member-states like Singapore with its staggering 10,368, Malaysia with 1,484, Thailand with 478 and Vietnam with 105.

Ecosystem

ANOTHER factor behind the weak performance of the STI sector is the weak linkages among players in the STI ecosystem.

The 2009 survey of Innovation Activities and the 2014 Usaid-Stride Assessment of the Philippine Innovation Ecosystem discovered that innovation actors have weak cooperation, partnerships and trust among themselves. Most HEIs perceive collaboration with companies as outside of their core missions and a risk to exploitation.

Consequently, firms report that difficulties in convincing HEIs of their shared interests stem from resentment, suspicion and distrust. In effect, firms end up with little technical assistance from the government and research institutions.

Another factor in this equation is restrictive regulations that hamper implementation of R&D programs and projects.

The tedious government procurement process hobbles the immediate procurement of equipment and other needed materials for research, which, in turn, delays the implementation of R&D projects, the GII report said. This was confirmed by the Usaid-Stride study, which revealed that restrictive regulations make the procurement of equipment and consumables for research extremely slow and unnecessarily complex, decreasing research productivity, publication potential, and speed-to-market of innovation.

In addition, the report said the government research grants do not compensate universities for the salary of faculty members’ research activities. This practice is rarely seen outside the Philippines.

The final factor in the weak performance of the STI sector is inadequacy of an STI infrastructure that includes laboratory facilities, testing facilities and R&D centers.

Many existing hubs need upgrading to improve their services, which contributes to the lack of absorptive capacity in research institutions, the Usaid-Stride report said. It also cited that the public institutions failed to provide young researchers with equipment packages, particularly those returning from PhD studies abroad with more advanced research agendas.

The country’s leading research institutions also remain concentrated in Luzon.

Hopes

DESPITE the many inadequacies, from funding to human capital, there are some technology-intensive research and capacity-building projects which resulted in products which are currently being used successfully.

One is the micro-satellite.

In April 2016, the country launched into space its first micro-satellite called Diwata-1. It was designed, developed and assembled by Filipino researchers and engineers under the guidance of Japanese experts. The Diwata (deity in English) satellite provides real-time, high-resolution and multi-color infrared images for various applications, including meteorological imaging, crop and ocean productivity measurement and high-resolution imaging of natural and man-made features.

It enables a more precise estimate of the country’s agricultural production, provides images of watersheds and floodplains for a better understanding of water available for irrigation, power and domestic consumption. The satellite also provides accurate information on any disturbance and degradation of forest and upland areas.

The country also has the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Noah), which uses the Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology. Project NOAH was initiated in June 2012 to help manage risks associated with natural hazards and disasters. The project developed hydromet sensors and high-resolution geo-hazard maps, which were generated by light detection and ranging technology for flood modeling.

Noah helps the government in providing timely warning with a lead time of at least six hours in the wake of impending floods.

According to Buendia, the country is now training the Cambodians on this technology, as part of the partnerships among Asean countries, just like in the case of Japan which assisted the country’s scientists and engineers in building its first micro-satellite.

Another hope lies in the so-called Intelligent Operation Center Platform.

Established through a collaboration between the local government of Davao City and IBM Philippines Inc., the center resulted in the creation of a dashboard that allows authorized government agencies, such as police, fire and anti-terrorism task force, to use analytics software for monitoring events and operations in real time.

Initiatives

THE DOST, in cooperation with HEIs and research institutions, established advanced facilities that seek to spur R&D activities and provide MSMEs access to testing services needed to increase their productivity and competitive advantage.

One is the Advanced Device and Materials Testing Laboratories. The center houses advanced equipment for failure analysis and materials characterization to address advanced analytical needs for quality control, materials identification and R&D. Closely related to this facility is the Electronics Products Development Center, used to design, develop and test hardware and software for electronic products.

There are also high-performance computing facilities that perform tests and run computationally intensive applications for numerical weather prediction, climate modeling, as well as analytics and data modeling and archiving.

The Philippines could also boast of its Genome Center, a core facility that combines basic and applied research for the development of health diagnostics, therapeutics, DNA forensics and preventive products, and improved crop varieties.

According to Buendia, the country also has drug-discovery facilities, which address the requirements for producing high-quality and globally acceptable drug candidates. She said the Philippines also has nanotechnology centers, which provide technical services and enabling environment for interdisciplinary and collaborative R&D in various nanotechnology applications.

Buendia said there are also radiation processing facilities that are used to degrade, graft, or crosslink polymers, monomers, or chemical compounds for industrial, agricultural, environmental and medical applications. The Philippines could also boast of its Die and Mold Solutions Center, which enhances the competitiveness of the local tool and die sector through the localization of currently imported dies and molds.

These reflect that we are advancing, albeit slowly, to a culture that embraces STI as a sure path to growth, according to Dela Peña.

 

Image Credits: LEREMY | DREAMSTIME.COM

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Alladin S. Diega is working with BusinessMirror as a correspondent since 2013. Mr. Diega is currently covering the Metro Page. He studied BS Journalism at the Lyceum of the Philippines and has also worked with various non-government organizations. He is currently into breeding African Lovebirds as a hobby.

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