The Realities of Science in a Third World Setting
Astronaut, medical doctor, biologist, chemist, computer engineer, physicist, forensic scientist, food scientist, marine scientist —
these are only some of the many versions of what I envisioned myself would be one day. While my dream took on several forms throughout different points in my life, I always knew that I would be taking on a career in science.
Perhaps it started with the colorfully illustrated books of animals, the all too familiar Sineskwela  theme song I always looked forward to in those carefree summer mornings, or the depiction of the brilliant (or sometimes deranged) scientist in Hollywood movies and TV who had a lab filled with advanced equipment — all of these have surely convinced me in one way or another that I could go on a successful career path while indulging my curiosity for the many unknowns of the world.
Throughout history, man has used science and technology for survival, sustenance and the advancement of society. Which is why industries and governments alike pour significant amounts of resources for scientific research to develop better processes and materials and solve other problems at hand.
But in the Philippines, science and technology remain stunted as compared to its neighboring countries and the rest of the world because of the interplay of several problems such as poor science and technology education, lack of government support, lack of national industries, the dismal state of working conditions, among others.
In the 2010 UNESCO Science Report, it is estimated that the country’s (the Philippines’) population density is 1 scientist per 12,345 people.
In 2008, the national government only allotted 0.14% of its GDP to science and technology compared to Thailand’s 0.26% and Malaysia’s 0.69% of the same year. According to Filipino physicist Caesar Saloma, in 2012, only about 8,800 scientists and engineers are engaged in research and development.
A Bittersweet Love Affair
When I tell people I’m a scientist by profession, I often get reactions of amazement not because of what I do, but more often than not, it is because it is rare for a Filipino to choose a full-time career as a scientist. In the 2010 UNESCO Science Report, it is estimated that the country’s population density is 1 scientist per 12,345 people.
While it is nice to be acknowledged as one of the rare species of a Filipino professional, being a scientist in the Philippines is a bittersweet love affair. While I am grateful that I get to do what I love every single day, I am just like the thousands of government contractors who suffer the same fate of working in dismal conditions — without employer-employee relations, basic benefits, and job security.
About a month ago, I had a freak accident at work. I accidentally sliced open my left wrist with a manual cutter and had to be rushed to the in-campus emergency room. It was a good clean cut and quite a deep one too, with blood gushing out of my wrist instantly that my first instinct was to tell the others to immediately call for an ambulance. Luckily, I didn’t hit any tendons or veins.
I will just look at the scar on my left hand and serve as a reminder of how a scientist’s career could very easily fall apart.
I remember asking myself three questions while I was waiting for the ambulance to come and get me:
“Was I going to faint from the blood loss?”
“Will I keep the full functionality of my left hand?”
“How the hell I am going to pay for the medical bills?”
To tell you honestly, I think at the time, I was more worried about not having money to cover the costs than my now sliced up hand because we had no medical insurance and our salaries were already a few months late. And if it wasn’t for the kindness of my professor, I would still be worrying about how to pay off the bills, however small that was.
I know that you’re probably thinking about how it could have been avoided if I practiced lab safety rules carefully and I don’t disagree with you. But it doesn’t change the fact that S&T workers like me face hazards every single day without the guarantee of receiving the benefit of the hazard pay.
To make matters even worse, under the recently released the Joint Circular No. 1 CSC-DBM-COA, contractual-based and job order-based workers are deemed illegal. This spells trouble for government workers like us, forcing us to enter third-party agencies that will be trying to bid each other out and leaving it up to chance if we get the research job or not. While this new scheme erases the words “contractual” and “job order”, it further encourages government institutions to get away from the responsibility of looking out for its workers.
But if science has taught us anything, it is this — conditions can always change.
It is high time for the scientists, engineers, and other S&T workers to go outside of their laboratories and research institutes to come together and campaign for more government support for research and better working conditions.
Despite the minimal job security and occupational hazards, nothing will stop me from pursuing my passion and establishing a career in science. Our society needs people who are curious, willing to take risks and are eager to share knowledge with one another. It’s just that sometimes, we do need a helping hand. I will just look at the scar on my left hand and serve as a reminder of how a scientist’s career could very easily fall apart.
“Sineskwela” is a Filipino science education television program that was aired in the 1990s.