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The Magsaysay Awards hold an important lesson — science must get out of the lab and into people's hands, writes Crispin Maslog.

The Filipino agricultural scientist, Romulo Davide — a pioneer in plant nematology in the Philippines — will receive one of six 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Awards, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, on 31 August in Manila.

This puts Davide among 117 eminent South-East Asians to receive the award, named after a popular Philippine president, since it was first given in 1958.

The Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation (RMAF) announced that Davide is being recognised for empowering farmers in the Philippines to use science to "multiply their yields, create productive farming communities, and rediscover the dignity of their labour". [1]

Davide made empowerment possible through his Farmer-Scientists Training Program, which puts farmers in direct contact with scientists who help them develop their technical capabilities to increase crop production.
He said in a recent interview that the programme teaches farmers "how to become scientists … we need more scientists to participate in the transfer of developed technologies to farmers".

The key to Davide's contribution through this programme is technology transfer — making sure that new technologies are made available to those who need them.

Agriculture and conservation

The award, which includes a gold medallion and a cash award, is not specifically a science prize but aims to reward excellence in various fields. Nevertheless, dozens of Asian scientists have won it in the past 50 years for their work to improve societies with science.

One of the early winners of the award in 1971 (for community leadership) was geneticist M.S. Swaminathan, known widely as the 'Father of the Green Revolution in India' for his role in a programme that staved off predicted famine in the 1960s and 1970s by producing high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice.

A Filipino scientist, Angel C. Alcala, won the award in 1992 (for public service) in recognition of his leadership in rehabilitating coral reefs in the Philippines. A marine biologist and conservationist, Alcala has campaigned to keep the seas healthy and bountiful, and built the Philippines' first artificial reef. He helped to evict commercial seaweed producers from the unique Tubbataha reef — now the Philippines' first national marine park.

In his crusade to save Philippine coral reefs by designating fish sanctuaries, he took the then-unconventional step of involving local people. On Apo Island in the province of Negros Oriental, his Silliman University team worked "hand-in-hand with local fishing families from the beginning; today the university has withdrawn and the people manage the restored reef themselves". [2]

These hopeful findings are now being put into practice throughout the Philippines. Alcala was appointed minister of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 1992, the year he won the award.

Improving health

Another prominent winner of the Award in 1961 (for government service) was a medical doctor, Raden Kodijat of Indonesia. He was recognised for leading a huge nationwide campaign against yaws disease, a debilitating bacterial infection that plagued Indonesia from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Kodijat developed methods that both cured the afflicted and prevented recurrence of the highly contagious disease. The Magsaysay Award citation praised this "calm, dedicated doctor who chose to forego the lucrative prospects of private medical practice, even as an adjunct to his official duties, in determined service to his people". [3]

Another South-East Asian scientist — Thailand's Krisana
Kraisintu — won the award in 2009 (for public service). She is a pharmaceutical consultant who worked with Thailand's Ministry of Public Health from 2002–2007 to increase access to life-saving medicines in Africa, particularly medicine for malaria and HIV/AIDS.

A Burmese doctor, Cynthia Maung,
received the award for community leadership in 2002 and was listed as one of Time Magazine's Asian heroes in 2003. A member of Burma's Karen ethnic group, Maung has lived since 1989 on the Thai-Burmese border, running a clinic treating Burmese refugees, migrants and orphans together with 100 paramedics and teachers.

Science and society

There is a lesson to be learned from the work of these prize-winning scientists: the value of systematically using science for the benefit of society by getting knowledge and tools out of the lab and into the hands of people who can benefit from them.

Too many South-East Asian and Pacific science institutions — mostly based at universities and government science ministries — are content with merely producing potentially useful results that end up forgotten in the laboratories. It is often claimed that inventions based on these results are pirated, perfected and marketed by developed countries.

These Asian scientist awardees all have something in common — they have chosen to serve the public. These scientists have used their science to better the lives of their communities, and their stories are an inspiration. We need to see more of Asia's young scientists following on their footsteps.

Crispin Maslog

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.