Science and politics: a tale of two predicaments

Words by Mariam Kristelle Luces

The field of science and research in the Philippines is in jeopardy. One does not have to look much further than the words and actions of our current president, Rodrigo Duterte, his cabinet members, and political appointees. As Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was passed, funding slashes to multiple departments and institutions have been enacted, including the Department of Education (DepEd), Commission on Higher Education (CHED), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Department of Agriculture (DA), and the Climate Change Commission (CCC) ⎼ to name a few. 

Cuts to DepEd and CHED have drastically impaired the agency’s response in online and remote learning and a reduction of scholarship approvals. A cut on CCC funds could end a research program on climate change. The budget for DA and DENR reduced by Php 11.7 billion and 68.7 million, respectively, have unequivocally put the country’s food security and forest management at risk.

There are tremendous implications for long-term growth and economic development in cutting budgets in these departments. It could lead to the attrition of researchers and graduates. It also highlights the administration’s priorities given that the President has recently passed the Bayanihan Act 2. DENR has been left out from the government agencies that have received funding under this act. This is despite the Php 389 million budget allocated for the beautification of Manila Bay which could have been rechannelled for essential services like academic scholarships for the poor and financial assistance for the unemployed. The urgency of the situation is further highlighted by the fact that most of the top science and technology positions throughout the Duterte administration have no formal scientific background. 

The act of dumping dolomite sand as part of the beautification project of Manila Bay is a clear manifestation of how the government overlooks the importance of proven scientific research and environmental studies at the expense of our taxes and public funds. We can rehabilitate Manila Bay in a more cost effective way by taking into account that it is a catch-basin. Improper waste disposal management, the lack of massive community sewage treatment facilities, and the  cleaning and dredging of the rivers and esteros that flow into the bay should all be properly addressed to gear the beautification project in the right direction. Money is a very sensitive topic now especially when the government claims it does not have any left to spare for healthcare yet suddenly we have the budget for a beautification project. 

The intention is there but the timing let alone the purpose is undeniably missing. Academe, in the case of UP, has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information related to the dolomite issue and has disturbed it into the policymaking process as possible. However, DENR Spokesperson Benny Antiporda, has been quick to jump on premature and fabricated findings, publicly touting futile remarks of the superficial benefits of dolomite sand in improving one’s mental health. 

The pandemic has underlined not only the lack of scientific knowledge among elected officials but the devaluation and dismissal of scientific expertise, as well as the consequences of budget cuts in government’s science and environmental agencies. An increased focus on science and research has resulted, which ironically had an associated risk of further eroding the public’s trust in our scientists, especially those who do not understand the nonlinear, consensus-establishing nature of scientific research. 

A government that actively silences scientific voices has developed a growing dependence on social media and fake news outlets for information. Last month, Facebook took down fake China-based, pro-Duterte accounts.  These accounts have also been found to be condemnatory of Rappler and have been providing support for the possible presidential bid of Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. Acceptance of misinformation can result in a cascade of dangerous events, such as spraying masks with petrol, encouraging public gatherings to boost mental health, government disregarding important scientific work, scientists and researchers facing serious online harassment, and the loss of public trust in our scientists and researchers, who are crucial to help us keep safe now and during future national crises. 

I express my deepest concern over the lack of scientists in the administration, and how it is critical for policies and projects to be made based on the best available evidence and research. But research funding is not the only thing concerning scientists. Science, and the scientific method itself, are under attack. We are continuing to pay the price for a government with no concrete plan. They focus on populist issues and later call it a success.  It is absurd and is pure negligence. This is not about any political party or color. It is about doing the job. 

Photo by Val Cuenca / ABS-CBN News

Mariam Kristelle Macabanding is currently finishing her Forestry degree from the College of Forestry and Natural Resources. Although she has yet to declare a major, she’s considering social forestry and environmental forestry. Her interest in forest laws and governance began during the summer of 2016 where she had the opportunity to volunteer at a Lumad community in Pampanga. From this experience, she learned the inequalities and lack of representation affecting and experienced by indigenous communities. When she is not busy reading about current affairs, she enjoys walking her dogs and participating in stray feeding programs.

The UPLB Perspective is accepting opinion articles that touch on relevant issues concerning news, politics, culture, and personal experiences. Send your articles or queries to opinion.uplbperspective@gmail.com

UPLB Perspective is the official student publication of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, established in 1973. It is the first campus publication established under Martial Law in the Philippines.

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