The Philippines moves to attract research and technology expertise

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New legislation approved by the Philippine Parliament in March aims to incentivise scientists and researchers based overseas to return home to deepen the research and development (R&D) talent pool.

The Balik Scientist Act, approved by the Senate in early March, is expected to be ratified by President Rodrigo Duterte and come into force by the end of the first half of 2018, according to Benigno Aquino IV, senator for Parliament and one of the bill’s sponsors.

The act expands upon the Balik Scientist Programme, introduced in the mid-1970s to encourage researchers to repatriate their skills through economic incentives and assistance programmes administered by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

According to Joey Salceda, house representative and one of the legislation’s principal authors, the act aims to, “strengthen the scientific and technological human resources of the academe, public institutions and domestic corporations to promote knowledge sharing and accelerate the flow of new technologies into the country”.

The reform should help address the Philippines’ current shortfall of scientific personnel: the country has 189 scientists per million people, according to data tabled in the Parliament, far behind other economies in the region like South Korea and Malaysia, which have 5300 and 2000 per million, respectively.

Prioritising research and incentivising personnel

Within the range of changes to be implemented following the act’s ratification, approved researchers returning to the Philippines for a short period of time will be allowed tax and duty exemptions on imported professional equipment and materials, free medical and accident insurance while in-country, and reimbursement of baggage expenses related to scientific projects.

For those making a long-term or permanent move, benefits include support in securing job opportunities for the scientist’s spouse, schooling allowances for children, a relocation subsidy, a monthly housing or accommodation stipend, and funding for the establishment and development of a facility or laboratory.

The legislation specifically targets industries that are priorities for the government, including artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering, energy, agriculture and food technology, ICT, pharmaceuticals, electronics, genomics, health, nanotechnology and cybersecurity.

Connecting higher education and industry

If the scheme succeeds, it is likely to both serve as a template for universities to develop new education and research programmes in the fields prioritised by the government, as well as attract the teaching expertise necessary to deliver them.

While the Commission on Higher Education currently provides funding for the retraining of teachers in fields prioritised by the government, the approach has not been enough, according to Father Miranda, president of the University of San Carlos, a private research university based in Cebu.

“They poured in money for research and the development of faculties, but the process has dragged on for a long time without many results,” Miranda told OBG. “San Carlos and other universities are working hard to create new partnerships, but we find ourselves overstretched.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship

In addition to the Balik Scientist Act, another initiative funded by the DST is under way to enhance collaboration between academia and businesses.

Launched in mid-February, the Filipinnovation Entrepreneurship Corps embeds researchers in teams of private sector entrepreneurs and experts in a month-long training exercise.

Principally taught by experts from George Washington University and John Hopkins University in the US, the programme aims to enable researchers to rapidly define the commercial and societal value of their research, and equip researchers and members of the business community with the skills to attract funding and strategic partners to implement their ideas.

Collaborating with the business sector in R&D is increasingly a priority for private higher education providers in particular, as they shift their focus to industry-oriented programmes to offset falls in enrolment stemming from the recent introduction of free tuition at state universities, according to Wilfred Tiu, president of Trinity University of Asia.

“Private universities are losing a lot of students. Some private universities are reacting by becoming more niche-focused and rebranding themselves as specialists in specific fields,” Tiu told OBG, adding that universities like Trinity are becoming “feeder” institutes to relevant industries with shortages of graduates.

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