What to expect and not to expect from the Balik Scientist Law

June 29, 2018 - 6:00 PM
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For many scientists, their sector still could use more support and assistance from the government. (Art by Uela Altar-Badayos)

A new law seeks to spur the Philippines’ growing science and technology sector in the country, amid the clamor for better funding, support and recognition for the country’s scientists and researchers.

President Rodrigo Duterte on June 15 signed into law Republic Act 11035 or “Balik Scientist Act,” through which the Department of Science and Technology is empowered to assist scientific and technological experts and professionals who are “Filipinos living abroad or a foreigner of Filipino descent” in their pursuits.

The law also provides for exemptions, reimbursements, subsidies and insurance grants to support those covered by the ambit of the program.

Some are pleased with what the law is trying to achieve, especially the the financial and technical support mandated by the program.

Doubts and a tall order

Legal pundit Legalist on Twitter pointed out the origins of the Balik Scientist Law—the product P.D 819 enacted by the late Ferdinand Marcos in 1975.

Though Legalist claims the decree failed to yield positive results due to its having been supposedly implemented decades later, the DOST announced that it had brought home 567 scientists since 1975.

The science and technology agency also hopes to bring home an additional 235 scientists by 2022.

A few years before the Balik Scientist Law came into being, the country was hit by news of an exodus of scientific and technological minds.

In February 2011, the Science Education Institute found that from 1998 to 2009, the number of outbound science and technology workers increased from 9,877 to 24,502, as reported by ABS-CBN news.

The bulk of those who were part of the exodus were from the medical field—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians and midwives.

Representatives from the institute claimed that the outflow of science and technology workers could also mean an exodus of more members of the research and development sector, something that could harm the country’s development. According to the 2011 report, there were only 165 research and development personnel per million Filipinos.

In January 2018, members of the scientific community criticized presidential spokesperson Harry Roque for commenting that Filipino scientists needed the assistance of Chinese counterparts to conduct research on the Benham Rise and other centers of marine biodiversity in Philippine waters.

Many pointed out that Filipino scientists and researchers did have the capability to conduct research, but lamented how the government failed to give enough support to the sector.

University of the Philippines maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal defended the scientific sector’s capability to do research in the area, citing its many projects even without foreign assistance. He, however, qualified that the sector deserved more attention from the government.

Why scientists left in the first place

The exodus of scientific and technological experts may be attributed to the high wages promised by overseas employment.

Careers in health and medicine, aviation, information technology, and engineering are among the highest earning fields for Overseas Filipino Workers, according to a report by Rappler in 2016.

Health professionals for one can earn around $2,239.94 or P111,620 a month abroad, and local employers do not yet seem poised to close the difference in wage or even top under the new legislation.

Economist Bernardo Villegas wrote that the bulk of OFWs actually come from middle-income households, not those living below the poverty line. The highly advantageous wage differential abroad spurs members of this socio-economic group to seek employment overseas.

Another report in 2011 sought to dispel the misconception that the rise of the OFW population was driven by poverty, citing a study the University of Asia and the Pacific’s Clement Camposano.

Camposano’s study found that access to overseas employment would require large sums of money in advance, due to the plane ticket costs and other fees. Seeking “greener pastures” through migration would be a main factor in pursuing opportunities abroad.