"Our next leader should have the vision to anchor our future on the primacy of science and technology."
Last week, together with our commercial counsellor, we met top officials of a Taiwanese company who had earlier expressed interest to invest in the Philippines. The planned investment was more than a billion US dollars, and we hastened to check if their interest had waned after the travel ban our government imposed last February 10.
That ban has since been reversed on Valentine’s Day, and both government and business officials in Taiwan appreciated the quick action.
While waiting for the arrival of the company Chairman and CEO, we sat in conference with other officials of the company, led by their Vice Chairman who was an economic minister at the turn of the century.
He told us that the secret of Taiwan’s economic advancement, despite its small size and lack of natural resources, and despite security threats, could be summarized in a short phrase: Research and Development—R & D.
Government put up research facilities for agriculture, for manufactured product development, for information technology, for medical science, for alternative energy, even robotics.
Then, it partnered with the private sector, which then manufactured the products that their technological research developed. In agriculture and aquaculture, research developed ways of cutting costs, increasing yield, and adaptation to both natural threats such as typhoons and droughts, or the challenges brought about by climate change. In information technology, they developed software that could compete with other highly developed countries.
And government assisted start-ups in practically every industry, particularly for exports and IT, providing them with business incubators, and arranged financing from government banks or even private banks where government maintained stock holdings.
In the ’80s and ’90s, GDP was growing at higher than 10 percent per annum. These have since tapered off by the turn of the century, but by then, Taiwan was already highly developed and was even a huge investor in the economic boom that happened in mainland China after Mao.
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I took mental note of what a highly respected writer, Marlen Ronquillo, whom I have known, since the start of the Cory administration, wrote in a recent column in The Manila Times.
His article rued the fact that no president of the Philippines has given much importance to science and data. Neither have most cabinet members. He mentioned that hardly any ordinary citizen knew who is, or was, the secretary of the science and technology department.
I particularly agreed with his observation that “a government with no regard for strategic investments for education and health [has] no concern for human capital…does not base its public expenditures on science and data.”
I recalled what he wrote during my conversation with the retired economic minister who was now vice-chairman of a huge corporation. Indeed, Taiwan invested in education and health and based its public priorities on science and data. Human capital is what made Taiwan prosperous, not natural resources, not even a huge population for a domestic market base.
In contrast, other countries profit from our human capital in the form of overseas workers because neither our government nor the oligarchic business interests that have made mega-billions on regulatory capture had invested enough in research and development, in science and data that would enrich our human capital.
Ronquillo concludes with the suggestion, perhaps more of a pipe dream, that “it’s about time we stopped electing professional politicians to the presidency,” decrying that “we have been through exhausting cycles of leaders crafting policies without the underpinning science and data.”
Meanwhile too, it has been reported here that a team of scientists led by an associate researcher at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica Institute of Chemistry had managed to replicate the anti-viral drug remdisivir which was recently cited as a promising cure for CoViD 19.
Laboring round-the-clock from Feb. 6 to 20, they were able to synthesize the drug with a purity level of 97 percent.
Their team leader told media that “each of them felt a strong sense of duty and was looking forward to contributing to the containment of the epidemic.”
Remdesivir is currently being developed by an American biopharmaceutical company called Gilead Sciences, and has been found to have encouraging results when administered to the first US patient infected with the coronavirus.
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Science and data. R & D.
Not to suggest that we should elect a scientist like the late Indonesian president Habibie to be our leader come 2022 when a strong-willed president would end his term with so many things yet undone, but one who would have the vision to anchor our future on the primacy of science and technology, and would give it priority in policy-making, government budgets and programs.