DOST seeks more support for 'Balik Scientist' program

Jasmin Romero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 28 2022 07:17 PM

The silhouette of a scientist is visible next to an illustration of a molecular structure of a peptide at the Robert-Bosch-Hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, Jan. 19, 2011. A team of German scientists has discovered an important helper within the human intestine: the human Defensin 1 was considered to be useless so far. Uwe Ansbach, EPA/File 
The silhouette of a scientist is visible next to an illustration of a molecular structure of a peptide at the Robert-Bosch-Hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, Jan. 19, 2011. A team of German scientists has discovered an important helper within the human intestine: the human Defensin 1 was considered to be useless so far. Uwe Ansbach, EPA/File 

MANILA —The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) on Thursday urged President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to strengthen a program that sought to lure scientists back to the Philippines and beat a supposed "brain drain."

The "Balik Scientist" program offers allowances, medical insurance, and a chance for scientists to be with their families in the Philippines in exchange for sharing the expertise they honed abroad. 

The program aims to get 101 scientists on board this year, its highest ever target, said DOST Assistant Secretary Leah Buendia. Thirty-three scientists joined the program in 2021, 34 the year before, and 57 in 2019, she said. 

"Recommendation din namin, increase [ang] pondo for scientists and R and D (research and development) para ma-mentor na nila ang mga young researchers, para mapondohan namin ang mga research proposals na ginagawa nila," Buendia said.

(Our recommendation is to increase the funds for scientists and R and D so they can mentor young researchers, and so that we can fund the research proposals they will come up with.) 

Dr. Jonel Saludes, who returned to the Philippines from the US through the Balik Scientist program, said he hoped the government would allot at least 1 percent of the gross domestic product to research and development. 

"Pakinggan ng government natin yung support na kailangan ng scientific community natin... We are a consumer economy. We are not developing our own technology," said Saludes, who specializes in chemical biology. 

(I hope our government listens to the call for support that our scientific community needs.) 

"What we need is to retain the talents here in the Philippines. We are talented enough, but sometimes we have a problem to bring them back," added Dr. Noel Peter Tan, who also joined the Balik Scientist program and returned from Hong Kong. 
 
RETURNING HOME

Saludes uses his expertise in chemistry and biology in researching medicine. He earned his doctorate degree from the University of California, completed his post-doctoral training at the University of Colorado, and later went to the Washington State University. 
 
"I have been away for about 12 years... I started asking the question ‘Bakit hindi? Bakit dito tayo nagtatrabaho nang todo-todo, nagseserbisyo sa isang foreign country? Bakit hindi tayo magserbisyo nang todo-todo para magserbisyo sa kapwa Pilipino?' Yun ang unang epiphany," he said. 

(I started asking, 'Why am I working so hard, serving a foreign country. Why not work hard for my fellow Filipinos?' That was my first epiphany.) 
 
Tan, meanwhile, was in Hong Kong for 9 years, where he completed his doctorate and worked as a senior engineer for the Nano and Advance Materials Institute. 

"I was only Filipino in that company to do scientific work.. My specialization is the application of nano science in different fields," Tan said.

Tan said seeing his colleagues in Hong Kong return to their home countries spurred his patriotism.

"I felt that, ‘Why am I working so hard here? Who is reaping my products, what I have worked with?’ So when I heard about Balik Scientist, I grabbed the opportunity," Tan said.

This composite image shows Dr. Jonel Saludes and Dr. Noel Peter Tan. DOST-Balik Scientist Program
This composite image shows Dr. Jonel Saludes and Dr. Noel Peter Tan. DOST-Balik Scientist Program

The DOST is confident of an “increase” in Filipino scientists through the program. 

"There has been an improvement in the benefits that the Balik Scientists will have if they come back to the Philippines," said DOST's Buendia. 

"Everyday that they are here sa Pilipinas, meron silang US$200 for subsistence... Libre ang pamasahe nila kahit saan sila galing. Meron silang relocation allowance for long term, at mayroon din silang medical insurance," Buendia said of onsite scientists.

Those engaged online meanwhile will receive a monthly salary of around P138,000. 

"They could be with their families, get back to their roots... They can also bring back their learnings from the country where they came from," Buendia said.

CHALLENGES

Despite improved perks, some challenges make it difficult for Filipino scientists to stay. 

"Yung mga Balik Scientists, mabili parin sila doon sa mga field of expertise nila kaya 'di natin sila agad mapauwi dito," Buendia said.

(The scientists are still in demand in their fields of expertise so we cannot immediately get them to ho home.) 

The local work environment may also be not as conducive for scientific research compared to what they are used to abroad. 

"I think what changed abruptly was the efficiency and bureaucracy of things," Tan said, noting as an example how he had to wait 3 months to procure chemicals he needed.

"Yung bubong na nagli-leak dahil sa ulan, yung toilet na 'di nagfa-flush... problema ko pa 'yan kasi hindi in good order ang systems," Saludes said.

(The roof leaks when it rains, the toilet cannot be flushed, even those are my problems because the systems are not in good order.) 

"Pag nabagsag ang glass window sa lab mo, problema mo pa na maghanap ng mag-aayos... Ang management system is not at the level of orderly compared to the developed countries. It affects your productivity...Things that our colleagues abroad don’t think of as a problem is a daily problem ng mga Filipino scientist," he added.

(If the glass window of your glass breaks, you have to find someone to fix it. The management system is not at the level of orderly compared to the developed countries... Things that our colleagues abroad don’t think of as a problem are a daily problem for Filipino scientists.) 

These however did not deter the 2 scientists, who eventually decided to stay in the Philippines. 

Saludes ended his long term engagement with the Balik Scientist Program and is now working at a university in the Visayas. Meanwhile, Tan is currently under the program on a medium term engagement and working in the same university.

"The biggest challenge in R and D sa Pilipinas is hindi ang infrastructure only, it is the commitment ng tao is no matter what, things will get done," Saludes said.

(The biggest challenge in R and D in the Philippines is not just infrastructure. It is the commitment of a person that no matter what, things will get done.) 

"Coming back home was one of the biggest fulfillment as a scientist. It may sound cliché 'no, but I definitely feel that I am needed the country... I feel useful and highly productive since I came home," Tan said. 

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