Bringing Filipino Scientists Home

One year after the Balik Scientist Law was enacted, we trace how scientists returning to the Philippines are continuing to transform institutions and serve their country.

AsianScientist (Aug. 8, 2019) – There’s something both exciting and too personal about Balikbayan boxes. It evokes a culture that is uniquely Filipino—a huge corrugated cardboard box containing supermarket goods and thrift shop finds from a foreign land signifying the love and care of overseas Filipino workers to their beloved back home. To some recipients, it means, “I think of you every day.” To others, it says, “I’m coming home soon.” These boxes are sent by nurses, caregivers, domestic helpers, construction workers, engineers, bankers and academics alike. The giving and receiving of Balikbayan boxes is the single most binding experience for Filipino families.

But a Balikbayan, or repatriate, is always more important than a box of goods. Likewise, in the science sector, bringing home scientists from abroad has a larger impact than reviewing and adopting their studies from afar. This is what the Balik Scientist Law is all about—making it a national policy to recognize the importance of letting “science, technology or innovation experts of Filipino descent contribute to the country’s national, political, economic and social development,” as the law describes.

The Balik Scientist Law was enacted on June 21, 2018, to institutionalize the 40-year-old Balik Scientist Program (BSP) and expand the benefits and compensation scientists receive under the program.

Since the BSP was established in 1975, 667 Filipino scientists from across the globe have flown home to share their expertise with universities and research institutions across the Philippines.

According to the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD), one of the implementing agencies of the program, since 2007, 314 scientists were engaged in a short-term capacity, lasting for less than six months at their assigned institutions, while 36 were engaged in long-term projects, lasting for one to three years.

In 2019, the program was expanded to include medium-term engagement: seven scientists returned to the Philippines to conduct research, mentor, build laboratories and enhance inter-institution partnerships for six to twelve months at a research institution.

This year, two scientists returned for long-term engagements—Dr. Irene Rodriguez and Dr. Wilfred Santiañez—both serving as assistant professors at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (MSI).

Rodriguez has been tasked to plan and set up the biogeochemistry and biotechnology laboratory at MSI, develop courses in environmental analytical chemistry, teach and train students. Meanwhile, Santiañez has been tasked to build facilities for seaweed research, conduct DNA barcoding of some key seaweed groups, write research proposals for funding, teach and train students.

Transforming institutions

During the Philippine National Science and Technology Week in Manila, various university officials shared at a forum on July 17 about the huge impact of returning scientists on their respective institutions, citing improvements to the laboratories and a clearer research direction.

For one, Tarlac Agricultural University (TAU), a university located in Tarlac province about three to four hours by land travel from Manila, hosted its first Balik Scientist, plant pathologist Dr. Narceo Bajet, in 2017. Bajet is based in the United States, working as a senior scientist at the Eurofins STA Laboratories in Colorado.

Professor Lilibeth Laranang, director of Rootcrops Research and Training Center at TAU, shared that Bajet helped their lab acquire equipment for studies on the sweet potato, the region’s main root crop. “Before, our laboratory was empty. Dr. Bajet filled it with new equipment,” Laranang said.

At the same time, Bajet also assisted Laranang’s research team in crafting better research proposals, while at the same time mentoring undergraduate students.

“The contract was supposed to be for three months, but there were delays in the way we conducted the project so it became … nine months,” said Laranang.

Similarly, Father Frederick Comendador, president of the University of San Agustin in Iloilo, Central Philippines, shared how grateful their university was for the help of the Balik Scientists who worked at their institution for years. Not only did they provide technical assistance, they also helped to improve staff performance and morale.

“Because of the strong work ethic that the scientists carry from foreign lands, the level of professionalism also increased among the employees in our university,” Comendador told Asian Scientist Magazine.

“They changed the culture of the people because all of a sudden, there are these scientists who came home for the love of their country and community,” he added.

An evolving program

However, the Balik Scientist Program is not perfect. Challenges include applications being declined because the scientist’s family could not be accomodated for short-term engagements, said Dr. Jaime C. Montoya, executive director of DOST’s Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD), another BSP implementing agency. But the Balik Scientist Law is a start.

“The passage of the law is an injection in the arm because it addresses most, but not all, of the problems of the BSP,” Montoya said. “Listening to the successes that we’ve had, we believe that we have to build on them to improve the program.”

“The program is still evolving … But when you become a Balik Scientist, more than the incentives and the research environment in the Philippines, it is the love for your country that will push you to come back to the Philippines,” said Montoya.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pexels.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shai Panela is an award-winning freelance science journalist based in the Philippines. She was part of the Asian Science Journalism fellowship program of the World Federation of Science Journalists in 2013 and covers stories in science, health, technology and the environment.

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