How science got a voice in the Philippine congress

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  • Agham — the science party — first won a seat in congress in 2010
  • Its candidate, Angelo Palmones, has sponsored 209 science-related legislative measures
  • He is confident his party will keep its seat in the May elections

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In the upcoming elections, a political party representing science aims to retain its seat and continue to influence policy, reports Crispin Maslog.

[MANILA] The lone voice of science in the Philippine congress is facing the daunting task of once again securing a seat in the mid-term elections in May, following three years' service.

Philippine law makes it possible to elect representatives to the House of Representatives from marginalised sectors, such as farmers, labourers, senior citizens, scientists, women and young people.

But with almost 200 marginalised groups putting up candidates and vying for about 60 seats, securing even one seat is a challenge, especially in a country such as the Philippines, where few recognise the importance of taking scientific research into account in policy-making.

The political party Agham, meaning 'science' in Filipino, is an acronym for the Alliance of Groups of Leaders in Science and Technology for the People. It first ran for election in 2007 but failed to get enough votes for a seat in congress. In 2010 it ran again and succeeded.

Angelo Palmones, a science communicator by profession and Agham's first representative in congress, is confident the group will win again. They may even get two seats, he says.

For Palmones, it is crucial that Agham wins a seat to continue putting the case for science in the highest policymaking body of the land.

In a world increasingly dominated by science and technology, it is ironic that many policy decisions are still made with little or no scientific evidence, he tells SciDev.Net.

This is particularly true in South-East Asia and the Pacific, where government decisions tend to be made by bureaucrats, mostly lawyers and politicians, with little scientific education, who lack the rigour that scientists use in decision-making.

New to politics

In 2005, Palmones and two scientists formed a group dedicated to scientific causes. Shortly afterwards, they decided to run for the 2007 elections.

Florentino Tesoro, a forestry scientist who was one of the original group and is now Palmones' chief of staff, says they persuaded one of the Philippines' top scientists, plant breeder Emil Javier, now president of the National Academy of Science and Technology, to run as their lead candidate in 2007.

The group mobilised a few hundred scientists to volunteer for the campaign.

But Agham lost at the polls. Part of the reason, says Javier, is that Agham's members and candidates were new to politics and lacked the political know-how to win votes. They also lacked funds, so their campaign was limited to a few urban areas, and they had no links to other political parties to help monitor the electoral process.

"This is necessary in Philippine politics, which thrives on wheeling and dealing, to make sure our party’s votes are counted," Javier tells SciDev.Net.

A regional first

Agham learned its lesson and, in the 2010 election, the group tried a different tactic by nominating a non-scientist in Palmones as its lead candidate.

The strategy worked and Agham got 242,630 votes, enough to earn the party a seat.

The victory marked a first in the Philippines, and perhaps in the Asia-Pacific region. Cursory research indicates that no other country in the region has elected a scientific representative to their legislature.

How did Agham do it the second time around?

Palmones thinks the reason he won, when a respected scientist failed in the previous election, is because he knows how to communicate science. And he has been communicating science through his well-received national radio programmes and science advocacy programmes for more than a decade.

"I was able to build a following among my listeners and the beneficiaries of my programmes, particularly health workers and health scholars in local governments and communities throughout the country. When I decided to run for congress, I therefore had a personal network throughout the country ready to help me," he tells SciDev.Net.

Once a congressman, it made sense that a science communicator sits in congress to simplify the science and argue for the importance of using scientific evidence in policymaking. He likens himself to a marketing expert.

Among his first projects was a one-day science fair, when he invited scientists to visit congress and discuss various aspects of science with legislators.

Members of congress rarely attend discussions on science-related issues, such as genetically-modified organisms. And the event gave science a human face.

Opening legislators' minds

After three years in congress, Palmones is happy to note he has started to open the minds of the current legislators to science as an integral part of people's lives and livelihoods.

This has enabled him to get legislative support for his programmes, including modernising the weather bureau, and emergency measures to address the shortage of science and maths teachers.

He also successfully launched a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology in four state universities, to start to address the lack of weather experts in the Philippines. The undergraduate degree in meteorology is the first in the country, which is prone to extremes of weather.

During his time in congress, Palmones was the primary sponsor of 209 legislative measures in the fields of agriculture and food, energy, environment and natural resources, health, research and development, science and technology facilities, and scientific education and human resource development.

Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general for communications and partnerships at the International Rice Research Institute, explains such effectiveness. "Science is inherently non-partisan and enables more-effective legislation for the benefit of all," he says.

In the United States, Bill Foster, a particle physicist elected to its House of Representatives last year as a Democrat from Illinois, has called for more scientists-statesmen, "who can bring to bear an analytical mind-set to law-making".

The Philippine experience of electing parliamentarians from a science party might be unique, but Palmones believes it can be replicated in other developing countries to inject science into the corridors of policymaking power.

See below for video on The Science of Agham:


This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.