Science Take the Wheel

Article by Raizsa Arielle R. Espina
Illustration by Sabrina Laceda
Published 2020 October 3

Months after COVID-19 left its mark as one of the most infamous viruses to ever cause a pandemic, the war against this disease has highlighted many of society’s greatest weaknesses. Aside from claiming thousands of lives and disrupting the way of life of hundreds of vulnerable communities, the pandemic has also magnified the ills of government systems and the prevailing ignorance to scientific evidence. The emergence of anti-maskers, systemic corruption, and continual abuse of power in the midst of this crisis stripped away the veil of politics and reality, revealing a broken world that thrives on greed and bad convenient science.

In countries such as the Philippines, this realization hit gravely as citizens themselves are left with no choice but to craft make-shift masks, impose public health guidelines, and centralize contact-tracing protocols that their government failed to provide them. Amidst these initiatives, the pleas of public health experts and the cries of the country’s bare coalition of scientists fall onto deaf ears. To make matters worse, while other nations slowly open their doors to welcome the new normal with increased healthcare capacities and efficient testing methods, the Philippines still seems to be stuck in the same situation it was in when the first lockdown was mandated in March. As the number of cases increases each day, those who have the willpower to even comprehend this situation are left to wonder, “What went wrong?”

According to a paper that aimed to analyze the Philippine government’s response to the pandemic in incorporating science into policy formation, there exists a long complicated history of undervaluing science as a driving force for development in the country [1]. Scientific advice is often treated as a directive resource rather than a reflexive one. That is, it is usually used as a vending machine that solely functions to the convenience of policymakers. Once the advice has served its purpose, it is no longer revisited nor is it even properly documented for proper development. This in itself is problematic as it fails to fully encompass the true purpose of applied science — to continually develop and accommodate the ever-changing needs of society. Ideally, instead of treating scientific advice similar to a book picked from a dusty shelf once in a while, it should be treated as an instrument continuously refined, maintained, and utilized according to the needs of the people.

Moreover, the decentralization of resources has also made the jobs of scientists more problematic than they already are, as there is neither a working organization nor an efficient system for science advisory in the country. The system that does exist through the National Academy of Science and Technology is, however, convoluted with bureaucracy and outdated processes that discourage scientists to lend their expertise. Hence, despite being a breeding ground for aspiring scientists, researchers, and engineers, the country’s attitude and ignorance almost always push said scientists to leave, searching for opportunities and people that actually heed given advice.

There is also a general lack of investment towards scientific communication, and this hinders the country from fully developing a community that appreciates the sciences and a well-informed public. Furthermore, the unique disposition of the Philippines home to numerous cultures and linguistic groups also makes efficient science communication a challenging endeavor. According to a study recently published by the Journal of Science Communication, scientific discoveries and research efforts are rarely showcased by mainstream media as these stories are often overshadowed by more pressing issues [2]. As a result, citizens undervalue the inputs of experts and perceive discourse as unsolicited advice. 

With all these factors combined, it is unsurprising that the government’s initial COVID-19 response strategy was missing the scientific foundation that it needed to be fully effective. Although data scientists and public health experts were quick to suggest tools and strategies, mobilization of these strategies fell short and eventually became lost in the chaos. Hence, citizens, despite being eager to protect their loved ones and communities, ended up frustrated as information was not properly disseminated. The mismanagement of the response to this pandemic is therefore greatly caused by the improper allocation of scientific resources as well as irresponsible leadership. A direct example is when Dante Gierran was appointed as the chief of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) despite admitting that he is not ”capable enough” for his position. He confessed not knowing anything regarding public health, consequently instilling doubt and destroying public trust when it is most necessary. This shows that now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to give power to the right individuals. 

Yes, one cannot blame a government leader for not understanding complex mathematical models; however, one can and should blame a government leader for not allowing a scientist to do their job to serve the people. It is high time for the government to allow scientists the platforms they need to help manage the pandemic. It is high time for the Philippines to value science and proper science communication to develop communities and save families in this time of crisis. 

Overall, the Philippines, because of the determination and resilience of its citizens and communities, has tremendous potential in organizing an efficient response plan against COVID-19. This potential, however, will be wasted if scientific evidence is not valued or given proper consideration by those in power. If government leaders continue to be satisfied with this unstable and unreliable response system, then more Filipinos will eventually suffer under the hands of this entirely manageable and preventable disease. At the end of the day, the road towards the new normal will be bleak unless those in power have the courage to let science take the wheel.

References

  1. Vallejo BM, Angelo R, Ong C. Policy responses and government science advice for the COVID 19 pandemic in the Philippines: January to April 2020. 2020; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pdisas.2020.100115
  2. Navarro K, McKinnon M. Challenges of communicating science: Perspectives from the Philippines. J Sci Commun [Internet]. 2020 Feb 3 [cited 2020 Sep 16];19(1):A03. Available from: https://doi.org/10.22323/2.19010203
  3. Patalinghug EE. An assessment of science and technology policies in the Philippines. Int J Technol Manag. 2001;22(5–6):599–616.
  4. Weible CM, Nohrstedt D, Cairney P, Carter D, Crown D, Durnová AP, et al. COVID-19 and the policy sciences: initial reactions and perspectives. Policy Sci [Internet]. 2020;53:225–41. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-020-09381-4

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