Leaving the Ivory Tower
“Although scientists today were brought into thinking that science is neutral and scientists should keep out of politics and society in general, at some point, they would have to face the fact that their science has a profound effect on the people at large. As Einstein said once, ‘Only when science can be made to truly serve the interests of the people and not of the few can it be truly meaningful.'”
By Ina Alleco R. Silverio
Contributed to Bulatlat.com
The word “scientist” usually paints the image of a man or woman with wild, unruly hair like Prof. Albert Einstein’s, clad in dirty-white lab coat with chemical burns and wearing Coke-bottle glasses. The adjectives usually attached to the noun are also predictable, usually synonymous with either being a “genius” or a “nerd.” Mention Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and the main characters in movies like “The Crazy Professor” or books like HG Well’s “The Island Of Dr. Moreau” and you quiver at the thought of having them as your science icons.
But are scientists really “crazy”?
“Only in the sense that non-scientific minded people might find it difficult to understand how scientists can stand and even enjoy cooped up inside smelly, smoky laboratories for days neglecting food and hygiene,” says Giovanni Alarkon Tapang, 32, MS, Phd in Physics from the University of the Philippines and chairman of the organization Agham or Samahan ng Nagtataguyod ng Agham at Teknolohiya Para sa Sambayanan (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People).
Giovanni – or Gani to colleagues and friends – admits that the classical descriptions and stereotypes of scientists are grounded in reality. According to him, members of the scientific community have some quirks and eccentricities that set them apart from any other social group.
“We get our kicks from mathematical formula and proofs,” he admits. “We also don’t give up easily when we’re confronted with seemingly unsolvable problems.”
Think of Nobel Prize winner John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) without the schizophrenia. Since 1997, Gani has been an assistant professor at the Instrumentation Physics Laboratory in UP Diliman. He’s written articles for journals, and gone to various conferences all over the country. The subjects of these gatherings are so incomprehensible to the average man or woman that one has to be a Mensa member to understand: “Spatial Resolution in Photon Limited Confocal Optical Microscopy”, “Detection Statistics of Ultrafast Twin-Photon Pulses”, and “Self-organized Criticality in the Exit Dynamics of Pedestrians Using a Two-Dimensional Cellular Automata.”
He shrugs, “Some conferences were fun, others so-so.” But then Gani has always been of a scientific turn.
As a child, Gani couldn’t be stopped from tinkering with and dismembering appliances, from the oven, the transistor radio, and one time even the TV set. He just wanted to know “what was inside and how it works.”
This seems to sum up the spirit of scientific exploration: why things are and how they work. “I suppose curiosity is one of the trademarks of scientists. The urge to know things, if only for the sake of discovering,” the UP physics professor explains.
His parents – mother is an optometrist and father an architect – were open-minded and nurtured Gani’s thirst for scientific knowledge. “When I was in the second grade, they got me those Time Life Science books and encyclopedia with glossy pictures. They got the books on installments and finished paying for them when I reached grade four,” he says.
By the time Gani was in sixth grade, he had already begun getting bored in his science classes. “Many of the stuff we were being taught I’d already read about; and the books were more up-to-date than the materials the teachers used,” he said. Gani would sometimes doodle in his notebooks instead of taking down lessons. The teacher caught him one time, and he didn’t know how to explain why he wasn’t paying much attention. “She probably would’ve thought me a conceited brat,” he recalls.
They didn’t really mind that ever so often there would be small fires and even explosions in the house (like when Gani plugged an appliance running on 110 volts into a 220 outlet to find out why the two weren’t compatible). But they did get worried they might one day come home to find the house a total wreck.
But even with his young mind working full-time like the Cartoon Network’s Dexter, Gani never really wanted to go into the sciences. He rattles off career ambitions he considered as a grade-schooler: carpenter, electrician, astronaut, priest.
“The last because my parents wanted me to enroll in a seminary,” he says. But before Gani could be delivered to the monks and a life of celibacy, a thick envelope addressed to him arrived. He got accepted to the Philippine Science High School (PSHS or Pisay), arguably the best science school in the country.
In Pisay, students went around making their own notebook computers from scratch, or created their own motherboards. If Scott Adam’s “Dilbert” went to high school in the Philippines, he would’ve gone to Pisay. “Science is the school’s strongest suit, but it also tries for a well-rounded knowledge in its students by encouraging those with a predilection for literature and the arts to join clubs and associations. But mostly, there were a lot of nerds,” he says.
Like most Pisay graduates, Gani went on to the University of the Philippines where he signed up to become an applied physics major. His undergraduate thesis was innocuously named “Non-Iterative Treatment of Brillouin-Wigner Perturbation Theory” and his masteral thesis in 1999 was on the much misunderstood “Complete Recovery of Weak Multifrequency Signals.” Finally, he got his doctorate of philosophy in physics in 2002 with a dissertation on the popular issue “Noise in the Detection and Processing of Weak Signals: Trade-offs and Benefits.”
Lecture on state of science
Gani would’ve most likely joined the ranks of the brilliant young men and women who spent their time on experiments, doing research and attending international symposia on topics less than two percent of the world population would comprehend. A lecture on the state of science in the Philippines hosted by the environmental group Kalikasan at UP Diliman’s College of Science changed all that.
“A lot of S&T advocates went to that lecture, and one of the results of the discussion was the resolution that something should be done to change the comparatively poor state of the S&T in the country,” Gani says. “We thought of forming a group that will banner the interest of the sector of scientists, and make S&T more responsive to local needs. Right then and there we united on the argument that this is achievable only if we make S&T serve the people. That’s why ‘S&T for the people’ is the group’s slogan.”
But what is the state of science and technology in the country?
Gani shakes his head: “In the Philippines, personal computers with the latest software is already considered hi-tech. That and lasers, and satellite feeds that are only 5 to 10 seconds late. The government wants the people to believe that just because there are computer-programming schools and so-called e-commerce the country’s already advancing in sci-tech. In truth? We’re so backward. We can do the research – we have the most brilliant minds in UP’s College of Science alone – but the experiments that are being conducted in UP labs cannot be replicated on a national scale.”
Based on the Technology Index of 1982, the S&T in the Philippines is defined to be -0.1 compared to the United States, the world’s technology leader, which is 100. The technology index is defined as the average of the sum of the number of patents and registration of new designs, technology trade, value added in manufacturing and the export of technology-intensive goods.
The Philippines also ranks low in technological capacity. Reason: An acute shortage in the number of scientists and engineers doing R&D, and of the inadequate resources and budget devoted to it. All these factors translate to the minimal invention patents granted in the Philippines, which likewise indicates little or no economic significance.
“And when it comes to the type of basic technologies-materials technology, precision equipment, energy technologies, information technologies, life technologies and management technologies, we have only what’s known as pre-operative capability,” the Agham chair says. “Neither is there significant research and development in the country. There’s a low number of personnel involved in R&D, a lack of adequate research laboratories and facilities, low output of scientific research publications, lack of funding and lack of government support for science education. There’s also a low quality of science and mathematics education in the country. The UP Institute of Science and Mathematics Education itself says that ‘many teachers do not have the content background required to teach the subjects they are teaching.’”
At a disadvantage
According to Gani, students, the budding scientists, technologists and engineers of the country are already at a disadvantage. He says that students find themselves with unqualified teachers, inadequate books, shabby laboratory conditions and the high cost of education.
“Underemployment, misemployment and the lack of available jobs hound college graduates. As professionals, our S&T practitioners receive low salaries and are deprived of the opportunity to improve their skills and hone further their technological knowledge,” he adds. “Basic industries such as pulp & paper, cement and steel should be the main beneficiaries of science graduates of a country. But given the absence of such basic industries, and the lack of government interest in truly industrializing the country, our engineers are forced to become mere technicians and supervisors in assembly lines and our scientists and researchers mere teachers at universities.”
And this is where Agham comes in. Gani says that the main unity of Agham members is to promote science and technology that genuinely serves the interest of the Filipino people, especially the poor. “We want to encourage S&T professionals and workers to share their knowledge and expertise through direct community service. You know, come up with basic studies that can help improve the community’s economic well-being. Also, we’re campaigning for the betterment of science and technology in the country through various forms, including, but not limited to research, advocacy, forums, and discussion groups.”
Gani explains that Agham’s advocacies are centered on five issues 1) food security and self-sufficiency (“This mainly means developing agricultural productivity and helping farmers”); 2) issues concerning public utilities such as electricity, telecommunications, and information technology; 3) developing scientific and mass culture; 4) campaigning for national industrialization; and 5) environmental protection.
A pretty tall agenda for a fledgling organization – but Gani and fellow sci-teachers are unfazed. “It’s the dreamer in me, in us. We want to make science less alien to the common people, to make it serve an immediate, practical purpose,” he points out.
Before he became an advocate of science for the people, Gani says he was fired up by the idea of making scientific discoveries. “But now the real challenge is how to make the discoveries and advances in science more accessible for ordinary people,” he says.
“Scientists are not really known for being critical thinkers. They accept cold, hard facts backed by in-depth research, tested in experiments and case studies. The social context of these facts is not really of much interest to them. It’s the ivory tower syndrome, ” he says.
Becoming socially-aware was part of Gani’s transformation from a laboratory denizen to activist scientist. When he ran for college representative in 1991which he won by a landslide (there weren’t any other candidates), Gani handled the volunteer corps which was among the University Student Council’s committees in charge of rallies. It was the height of the anti-U.S. bases protests, and demonstrations were frequent.
“I wasn’t an expert on what I was doing, but what I understood about the issue was enough to push me to convince other science students to join the protests,” he recalls. “We campaigned on the toxic waste issue and how the bases produce and leave them behind in host countries. We also agitated against the presence of nuclear weapons within the American military installations. I read up on these things so I could explain the issues better.”
These days, Agham sponsors educational discussions and workshops on various topics. One day they’re holding a workshop on electronic lay-out, making power-point presentations and putting up websites for people’s groups like Anakbayan and Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY). The next they’re helping consumer groups like People Opposed to Warrantless Electricity Rates (POWER) compute how much incredible profits the independent power producers (IPPs) and their sister companies through overcharging.
When farmers from Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog launched a campaign against the controversial genetically- modified organisms (GMOs), Agham came up with a comprehensive paper detailing why GMOs are bad for the environment and for people. “We keep wracking our brains on how we can contribute more to people’s campaigns,” he explains.
Gani can’t help but take pride in one of Agham’s greatest achievements. During the height of People Power II, Agham managed to mobilize 700 science and math students, academics and professionals from both public and private agencies to join the rallies in EDSA and the historic march to Mendiola to oust former President Joseph Estrada.
Among the most creative posters, websites and text message-networks during that time were put up by Agham members and allies. “Who says nerds aren’t creative?” he says.
If there’s one thing that Gani hates about the scientific mind, it’s the weakness of neutrality. “Many scientists all over the world are too engrossed in their own discoveries,” he says. “While they are so responsible when it comes to monitoring developments in the scientific field, they are often neglectful of the social responsibilities that come with their creation. Sure it was scientists who invented the nuclear bomb as well as other weapons of destruction; but it’s the military and their governments who unleashed these horrors on the world. The problem with scientists is that many of us choose to be neutral.”
“Although scientists today were brought into thinking that science is neutral and scientists should keep out of politics and society in general, at some point, they would have to face the fact that their science has a profound effect on the people at large. As Einstein said once, ‘Only when science can be made to truly serve the interests of the people and not of the few can it be truly meaningful.'” Bulatlat.com