Q&A: “Tech opening up opportunities for Filipinos”

Fortunato de la Penav2-main
Fortunato de la Peña, the Philippine Department of Science and Technology Secretary. Copyright: Department of Science and Technology. This image has been cropped.

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Science and technology providing opportunities for Filipinos in underserved areas, says top science official.

[MANILA] Fortunato de la Peña, secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology (DOST), says that his focus on bringing “Science to the People”, his official policy slogan, is about helping all Filipinos sustainably develop their local expertise, no matter how narrow, to help uplift underserved regions.
In this interview with SciDev.Net conducted on the sidelines of the country’s annual national science and technology week (17 to 21 July), De la Peña shares his thoughts on the role that science and technology plays in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the benefits of supporting small enterprises and what he would do for Filipino scientists if he had more money.

“Of course, we have the cluster on education where we highlight technologies that are designed to make learning produce better results”

Fortunato de la Peña, Department of Science and Technology


The theme of this year’s science and technology week is Science for the People: Enabling Technologies for Sustainable Development. Can you highlight a couple of the new displays that you feel are essential to helping the Philippines meet the SDGs?

In the food security cluster, we’ve been showing some of the more recent technology outputs that we have. One is [about] propagating in a more productive manner…native livestock. Whether you’re talking about the native pig or native ducks, we think that in the long run we should be more dependent on [them] considering that [they] are more resilient and can be raised by small entrepreneurs, even families.
Secondly, we have some technologies that are related to the very unique biodiversity species in the Philippines; for example, long-running research on giant clams. Maybe, the volume [of giant clams] that we have is not that much because we have very unsustainable practices, let’s put it that way, so that [the giant clams have] already become endangered. [The giant clams] could have potential in terms of generating income for our people if [the clams] can only be sustained.
In the area of health and wellness, we have on display biomedical devices that we have been developing. This is a new area for investments and research and development. We are trying to address particular concerns brought about by the very high input costs and the need for bigger numbers [of devices] that are affordable.
If you move on to disaster resilience, for me that’s very important. Even if we improve productivity, but we have high losses, that is still a negative net. So as much as possible we develop technologies that can give us better warning; for example, the newly launched technologies in [earthquake] fault finder. That can lead us to avoid the places where disasters are most likely [to take place].
Then we have a cluster on sustainable cities. This is, again, where planning and determining the best use for particular areas is important. We can be helped by technologies like remote sensing and lidar [laser mapping].
We have a cluster on growth and equity. This highlights some of our technology interventions for our small enterprises to help them expand their horizons. Of course, we have the cluster on education where we highlight technologies that are designed to make learning produce better results.
Finally, we have the cluster on international partnerships. We highlight some of the technologies from other countries which we feel that we can benefit from.

One of the highlights of Science and Technology week is the launch of a mobile learning facility called “nuLab.” It’s a customised bus equipped with modern audio-visual and educational tools to promote science and innovation to students. DOST launched a similar initiative back in 2010 called Science Explorer. How is nuLab different and what improvements have you made that will help make nuLab more successful than its previous incarnation?

The first one [Science Explorer] was successful except that we only had a few buses [which] eventually, because of wear and tear, had to be retired. [DOST says that Science Explorer served 32,000 students in more than 100 municipalities in the country.] And if you have to buy new ones, you better buy the better versions and take advantage of the new technologies. At the same time, the content of the courses now has changed quite a lot. Now you’re talking of nanotechnology, genomics and biotechnology, which were not taken up before. We are putting in the needed elements to be at par with the technologies that are available now. It is imperative that we improve.

You’ve been focusing heavily on bringing science closer to the Filipino people. How is that going? What are some of the challenges you face in trying to achieve your goal?

I think that we have been able to [get] the participation of our scientists and technologists in the regions of the country where in the past they have never undertaken major research and development projects. Now we recognise that they have capabilities in certain areas. We help them by way of capacitating and doing actual R&D work, which is relevant to their area. In the case of our programme in upgrading our small enterprises, I’m very, very proud of it because we have seen how even…small enterprises in the regions have been able to come up with products that can become competitive worldwide. [According to handouts during the S&T week event, in 2018, DOST’s Small Enterprise Technology Upgrading Programme (SETUP) generated US$165 million in sales, created almost 43,000 jobs and provided over 17,000 micro, small and medium enterprises with science and technology assistance.]
Some of these businesses have never had experience with exporting, but now they [do]. What is interesting is the kind of complementary [network] that we have built among them. Our beneficiaries, the equipment, the manufacturing sector are now servicing other clients that we have assisted. Those that are producers of raw materials are now interacting with processors, etc. In a quantitative manner, we have increased the number of beneficiaries. But what is more important is the nature of the outcome that we have generated. Other than that, the way we have been extending support to people below the poverty line is very important. This is where our scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been quite successful. We have now covered 99 per cent of all municipalities in the whole country. We have scholars in all of these places and we are proud to say that every poor scholar that we help to graduate is able to lift his family out of poverty. 

How responsive are scientists and educational institutions to DOST’s programmes?

In the past, we got proposals from different universities and research institutions. Our historical data shows that there are only around 83 or 85 of those institutions that have benefited from the research and development grants that we had. Considering that there are more than 2,000 higher education institutions across the Philippines, you can see that 85 is a very small number. [So] we have…gone to the regions and even if the area of expertise [of the scientists there] is narrow, we build them up. Even if they are only focusing on sea cucumber, it’s alright. They can create a bigger industry out of it if they can do it in a sustainable manner. Even if their program is just dealing with citrus, if it will benefit the region, it’s okay. This is my way of interpreting science for the people involving the scientists. 

You’ve focused a lot on trying to increase the budget for science and technology. Has the budget changed under the current administration? If you had more money for your department, what would you do with it?

In terms of absolute figures, there has not been too much change (dramatic increases happened in 2014-2015 during the previous administration). But you have to consider that the budget is composed of various parts; for example, research and development, human resource development, infrastructure, etc. Sometimes on a year-to-year basis, even if there is an increase [in the amount], the total increase is not so much. There are years when the increase in capital infrastructure gets a better share of the total. So that when the infrastructure is done, [the next year] it might look like there’s no change in the budget [amount]. But it is simply because the infrastructure component has been completed and the R&D has gone up.

DOST budget


If I were to get additional money, I would try to bring researchers into full maturity. It is not enough that the researcher has finished what he has originally done; I want to see him continue so that the output in the end is already mature and more ready for use and transfer.
I would also use [additional money to develop] more projects to improve productive enterprises in the regions. They are the ones who create added value and employment. This to me is a very important feature of reducing inequality, which the president wants to do by creating opportunities.
Lastly, we would like to devote resources for research and development that is being done on a partnership basis. If there are research topics that the academe and industry would like to collaborate on, I would like to put more resources into that.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.