Friday, September 05, 2008

Putting a cork on brain drain


Putting a cork on brain drain
By Kim Gargar

A graduate of BS Biology working as bank teller; a BS Chemistry graduate teaching P.E.; a physicist fresh from college selling toothpaste and other products of a multi-level marketing company; a mechanical engineer assembling electric fans in a Laguna factory; an electronics engineer soldering TV circuits for a Japanese TV company; a cum laude chemical engineering graduate titrating every day in a quality control laboratory for a food manufacturing factory. [Editor’s note: Titration is a simple laboratory method of quantitative/chemical analysis often used to determine the unknown concentration of a known reactant. It is also called volumetric analysis because volume measurements play a key role in the procedure.]

These are the realities of under- and mismatched employment many science and engineering graduates in the Philippines have been facing for decades: as students they went through several years of hard study in high-level science but end up working to do activities that do not require their advanced skills. Add to these our medical doctors who after studying for more than nine years just to add an “MD” after their names are now starting to prepare themselves to become nurses in America. How about our few very good high school science teachers migrating to the US to earn dollars by teaching in public schools there?

The list seems to be never-ending and these specific cases only reflect the general state of science in the Philippines. A Science Education Institute survey revealed that only one out of five high school physics teachers is qualified to teach physics. In another study, a Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) survey of 2nd year high school students, the Philippines ranks 43rd among Asian countries. At the top is South Korea while Indonesia ranks 36th on the list.

The number of research scientists and technologists for every million Filipinos is around 100. This is very much lower than the United Nations prescription for the Philippines—380 for every million. However, even with the small size of the science and technology sector, underemployment is one big problem of the sector. This is not surprising as underemployment in the Philippines is a common phenomena. According to the National Statistics Office, 6.38 million (18.9 percent of the total employed) were underemployed in 2007. The actual statistic could be higher.

If a fresh science and engineering graduate is lucky enough, he gets to teach in universities and colleges and be able to impart what he had studied for several years. If not, he would go abroad and join research laboratories in Japan, the US, and Europe depriving the country further of highly skilled intellectual workforce. Even with a Balik scientist program, it is hard to have them stay here in our country.

If not teaching, those with some sense of patriotism remain in the country as technicians or as managers (still not a science practitioner) in multinational corporations. For instance, many graduate Physics degree holders or students from the National Institute of Physics are now in the production lines of semiconductor companies where research and development (R&D) activity is very minimal and limited to improving operations efficiency. They will soon have to contend with Intel Philippines moving its operations to other countries.

Many chemical engineers or chemists practice their profession as consultants to local or foreign chemical companies helping them solve elementary problems that do not require advanced methods or principles in chemistry. “Brain drain” does not only happen with people leaving the country for employment abroad; it is also possible when people’s talents are not tapped for domestic use.

What we have is an educational system that produces far very few good scientists and engineers and a working environment that needs less or none at all. With the rise of call centers and other business-process outsourcing companies, the underemployment rate is expected to also rise.

Increasing the number of human resources in science and technology is only one part. There is a move to increase the quality and number of graduate studies in engineering through the Engineering R&D for Technology project where nearly P6.5B is targeted for scholarships and infrastructure. However, the government’s strategic plans on development are not geared towards building a truly self-reliant economy. These plans have been tailored for our export-oriented and import-dependent economic model that weakens domestic production through its policy of opening national industries to foreign corporations and deregulating and liberalizing ownership of critical base industries. In such a situation, what need is there for a highly trained scientist or engineer?

This problem can be faced head on by putting up basic industries to manufacture goods and materials for domestic needs which will require science and engineering graduates. This will widen their employment opportunities as technical workers and be involved in research and development for local industries and hopefully put the cork on our brain drain.

Kim Gargar has a Master of Science in Physics from UP Diliman and now teaches at the Mapua Institute of Technology. He has been active in AGHAM since 2001.


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