by Patricia B. Mirasol

Scientists and academicians discussed the role of the scientific community in dealing with national issues, including the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic ravaging the globe. “Partnership with the government and private enterprises is the way to go, at least in medicine. We cannot rely on Western products all the time,” said Ramon B. Gustilo, Ph.D., Orthopaedics, during a virtual conference organized by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) to welcome its newly elected academicians and corresponding members.

“There are a few pockets of innovation here and there. COVID-19 cannot throw the momentum out entirely, but there has definitely been a setback on R&D… There is some focus now on how science can ease the pandemic’s effects on health and the economy,” said Gonzalo C. Serafica, Ph.D., Chemical Engineering. “Technology can act as a major player in bringing back the economy.” 

NAST is the highest recognition and scientific advisory body of the Philippines under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). In March, Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson called out the government for its lack of support of the Philippine scientific community: “I have repeatedly raised the issue of the minuscule budgetary allocation for research and development (R&D) in the national budget year in, year out — an average of, lo and behold, 0.4% of the annual budget from 2016 to 2020, including 0.39% for 2020. For the same five-year period, the DOST’s average budget is only P20 billion or a meager 0.56% against the trillions of pesos that we pass every year as our national budget,” he said in a statement. “Science entails research. Science can greatly help especially during looming disasters such as COVID-19. It is high time our government throw its support behind our homegrown scientists.”

During NAST’s virtual session, participants shared the projects and initiatives they are working on. 

•  Francis L. de los Reyes III, Ph.D., Environmental Engineering, is assisting a team in the University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman in efforts to detect coronavirus in esteros (estuaries) in Manila and Davao using RNA signatures. He is also conducting a related wastewater study in the US to detect the same virus and is relating it to infection rates in the community. 

•  Christopher P. Monterola, Ph.D., Physics, along with his team at the Asian Institute of Management, is trying to attract from talent from the US and South Korea and giving them the needed resources to maximize their capacity here; assisting a health-tech startup make various projections such as patients’ hospital durations; and teaching farmers how to minimize defaults via their microfinancing fintech company. “Science can help companies be competitive,” he said.

•  Arnel N. del Barrio, Ph.D., Ruminant Nutrition, is handling P30M worth of projects as executive director of the Philippine Carabao Center. These projects, aimed at helping dairy farmers improve food productivity and accessibility, include the development of  “milkibuns” (akin to the Nutribun bread product developed in the 1970s) from their lab-to-farm technology.

Asked too about pressing issues such as the upcoming challenges of distance learning, Windell R. Rivera, Ph.D., Medicinal Science, said that professors at the UP Diliman College of Science were encouraged to modify their course goals and learning outcomes. “We are focusing on helping students improve their writing skills as well as their critical thinking and analysis. Scientists need good writing skills,” he said. 

Maribel G. Nonato, Ph.D., Chemistry, related their experience at the University of Santo Tomas (UST): “We are lucky we have our LMS [Learning Management System] already, but of course it’s still a big adjustment for those who are not tech-savvy or lack funds. We’ve since established a system to provide assistance for our students in terms of loans and Internet connectivity.”

Responding to a question regarding how soon a COVID-19 vaccine could be developed, Annabelle P. Villalobos, Ph.D., Chemistry, replied:  “Speaking about the efforts of the US and UK, the earliest we can expect a vaccine is next year, although it may not be at 75% efficacy. It may only be utilized for emergency purposes, like what Dr. Anthony Fauci wants.”