Thursday, March 22, 2007

A winter of discontent for our weathermen and what can we do about it

FIRST, it was doctors becoming nurses to take jobs abroad. Then, pilots, geologists, mining engineers and information technology professionals seeking greener pastures beyond the borders. Now, weather forecasters are also leaving the country in search of a better—pardon the pun—climate.

Now, this one should really hurt because weather forecasters provide a very essential—nay strategic—public good: that of providing weather data and forecasts. A lot of life-and-death decisions are made both by the private and the public sector based on these data and forecasts. Information about typhoons, storms and floods save thousands of lives.

They also help producers, government planners and private business minimize the negative impact of natural disasters. Weather and climate data help soldiers and cops in the fight against terrorists and communists. They help exporters, importers, logistics firms and shipping companies plan the movement of goods and services. And of course, these services are getting important by the day as we suffer, with the rest of the world, the effects of climate change.

The literature on global warming says that increasingly, weather and climate all over the world will be less predictable. That spells danger for the country, and only a good weather-forecasting capability can help us cope with these changes.

But since our weather forecasters are being lured by talent poachers abroad, it’s crucial to confront this problem squarely now. The solution is simple but the country’s policymakers, both from the public and private sectors, need to have a change in mindset, a paradigm shift.

At the outset, it’s clear that our weather forecasters need more material rewards for their skills and we may have to give it to them. Since this country pretends to be a democracy where individual pursuit of happiness is paramount, no one should even think about physically preventing them from leaving. That is their right. But before anyone in our midst accuses them of greed, “materialism” and “lack of patriotism,” let’s put this problem in broader context.

The problem of weather forecasters leaving the country simply reflects Philippine society’s lack of appreciation of scientific talent and science in general. Many scientists work in government agencies providing services and promoting national development. Strategic activities like defense, weather forecasting, research and development, crop protection, plant breeding, biotechnology are only among the few examples. They are a special people who push the frontiers of knowledge.

They are special because they are among the brightest in our midst; people who spend long hours in laboratories and workshops to generate information, knowledge, and technologies that are vital to development and progress; and their supply is normally scarce. They are virtual gems, treasured in many countries in the world.

Not in the Philippines. For long, policymakers have been treating scientists like ordinary people with ordinary needs. Take note how the salary-standardization program has prevented them from getting wages substantially higher than those of janitors and security guards. Most agencies they are working for are poorly funded.

The budget of the Department of Science and Technology, for instance, has practically stayed the same in the last several years. That is why we find many scientists in these agencies doing excruciatingly demoralizing administrative and armchair “research.”

No wonder, most of them dream of moving abroad, temporarily or permanently, so they can really do what they love: honest-to-goodness scientific research and some dignity of being a “scientist.” It is sad to note that in just one DOST agency, at least 40 of its scientists and researches have gone abroad or have joined private companies last year.

But can a poor country like the Philippines really match the offers abroad? Where can it get the money?

Local decision makers keep raising this issue, but they entirely miss the concept of “purchasing-power parity.” A dollar can actually buy more goods and services here than it could in places like Singapore and the US because of differences in living standards.

So if government policymakers want to raise the weather forecasters’ pay, they don’t really have to match the offers abroad dollar-for-dollar. All they have to do is to figure out that parity or the minimum levels by which our weather forecasters and scientists could feel some dignity while serving their country well.

That means, they can spend long hours in the laboratory without fretting over a leaking roof at home, the next tuition installment for their children or the health insurance of their family. Or about having to catch the MRT because, for all the long years of service, they can’t even afford a second-hand car.

For meteorologists, for instance, we should immediately put together a training program, or even a scholarship program, for aspiring scientists. This can be done pretty easily—granted policymakers take immediate action—since we could actually train forecasters from many applied science disciplines. Many forecasters actually came from engineering. This training program should be a continuing process so those who leave for greener pastures can easily be replaced.

Let’s face it; we are in the age of globalization, where national borders are meaningless. There’s an ongoing war for talent all over the world, particularly in the Asia-Pacific Region, and scientists are rational beings who respond to economic incentives. That’s a fact of life in a world that is—to use Thomas Friedman’s term—getting flatter by the day.

Certainly, the question of where to get the money is a valid, albeit a minor question. The more relevant question is: Do we badly need them? If the answer is yes, then we have already solved the problem. If we think we really need them here, we will mobilize resources for them. We will put our money where our heart is. There are actually lots of unproductive expenditures in the government from where to draw those resources.

On a broader front, there is really a need for a greater appreciation of our scientists. These people are globally mobile, often interacting with peers worldwide through seminars and fellowships. Hence, many of them know how miserable their standards of living are compared to their counterparts in, say the Asia-Pacific Region. Thus, they are the most vulnerable to recruitment by foreign companies that not only offer generous pay but also access to topnotch research facilities, tools and working environment.

If we can attend well to our scientists’ needs, we will send market signals to our bright students in science high schools that hard sciences actually pay materially. Then we can attract more of them to the science profession and ease the scarcity of scientists and technical people. If young kids see that science is cool, we will stop hearing complaints about
“brain drain” and skills shortage. Right now, many of these science high-school graduates are taking nursing, mostly egged on by families looking to get dollars abroad. But this need not go on forever. (Note: The original version of this piece was written as editorial for BusinessMirror, 23 March 2007)


Anonymous said...

Finally! I've found a pinoy blog that is REALISTIC when it comes to the challenges of globalization. I was getting tired of reading short-sighted yet pride-filled arguments about preventing people from leaving the country as if this were Cuba.

You are bookmarked in my favorites :)

Dave Llorito said...

thanks a lot. studying globalization is my passion and i view it within the context of people's choice.