Thursday, June 11, 2009

National development, science and language

Having been back from a workshop and a guest lecture invite from four Thai universities, it is time to reflect on how national priorities in science affects development. I visited Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Katsetsart and Mahidol universities. The first is Thailand's oldest university and has a city campus in Bangkok. Its faculties are considered Thailand's most prestigious. Thammasat has its social sciences faculties near the Chao Phrya river and its sciences campus at Rangsit, north of Bangkok. Katsetsart is located in Bangkok and is the prime agricultural university. While Mahidol is known for the health sciences and is located in Salaya.

What I noticed is that each public university has centres for spurring national science development according to research priorities. Thammasat's Rangsit campus was first conceived in the 1980s as a venue to boost Thailand's scientific development. Similarly Kasetsart and Mahidol had similar facilities. Today Mahidol gets the biggest state allotment of 5 B baht a year, a majority of which goes into the graduate programs.

The University of the Philippines gets a slightly smaller appropriation 6 B pesos or 4.6 B baht a year but that is needed to support a university system of 7 campuses rather than a graduate program alone.

The Philippines and Thailand had the same level of national development in the 1970s with the Philippines having the edge in having a managerial and technical class proficient in English. The cliche is this" Thais were sent to study in UP Los Banos to find how to grow high yielding rice and now who imports rice?"

What has happened then? Thailand was able to leave the English speaking Filipinos eating the dust. Surely the disaster spawned by the Marcos regime is a big factor. However when the Marcoses were booted out, succeeding administrations should have been able to play catch up. But none did until the Gloria Macapagal Administration thought it was wise and prudent to invest just about 3 B pesos for the National Science Complex at UP. This was approximately 30 YEARS after Thailand did the same thing.

Despite Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's faults and perceive faults, she is the only Philippine President that backed up her words to develop our science infrastructure with cash.

Thus Thailand is ahead from the Philippines in science and national development by about one generation. This is the same time that was needed to create Thai scientific capabilities in all aspects. Thai biomedical research in its schools of medicine have made great advances in tropical public health as well as cater to medical tourism. Each of the university hospitals can serve the Thais as well as the medical tourists that pay a premium for health care. And I need not emphasize agriculture, where Thailand made a breakthrough as early as the 1970s.

The development of science and technology is closely tied with basic education. While sending students to study for science advanced degrees overseas was a worthwhile strategy, Thailand never neglected its basic education sector and this can be seen in the well built schools that dot the countryside.

Thailand has its own political culture so akin to the Filipino and the social problems are in some extent similar. Despite this the Thais have succeeded in national development. There is a widespread acceptance that political stability is needed.

As for advancing science capability, Thailand's major universities are increasingly implementing ENGLISH language programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. Increasingly upper level undergraduate courses are taught in English and many graduate programs are in English. These programs don't cater for foreigners but to Thais. And increasingly many Thais now can speak good English. This is evidenced by the many international refereed publications churned out by Thai academics in all departments. In UP Diliman there are some departments with nary a publication!

As my Thai colleagues have pointed out, the University of the Philippines is going backwards. Instead of improving English language competency and programs, it still cannot resolve the debate on language. The Thais say that if the university abandons English in teaching, scientific development will be postponed by another generation.


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

Welcome to Philippine Commentary Ben...I see you are in or have been to Thailand recently...

I suppose the most tangible and real proof of Thai scientific progress is all that good eating in Bangkok! Not only fresh vegetables and meat and seafood but superior fruits...which brings us to the point of departure in the two countries' trajectories.

Many Filipinos have mourned the fact that the Thais got a lot more out of places like UP Los Banos (and did more with it) to produce superb sampaloc, durian, cashew, etc. That wasn't even genetic engineering but just scientific tree farming and some mass production tissue culture.

I think we have not played our cards right from a hand that is still superior in its natural endowments.

Anonymous said...

which suggests that thais imbibe the value of english as a language of science AFTER it has established the infrastructure in science. they know that science--the activity--has nothing to do with the english language, for science is "out there". but now fairly confident that they can DO science, the thais are now out to share their knowledge--well, of course in all practicality, in the global lingua franca.

in u.p., as in other phil unis, it's all porma, no substance. the form is of course exuded very well in english. talk about english as a competitive advantage. did this send us to the moon?

inodoro ni emilie

p.s.: sorry for the double post. the comment link is initially confusing.

Anonymous said...


not to nitpick--oh well, since the subject is english, anyway: could you check your first sentence. something is dangling.


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

But how do you figure Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message"?

I think it is impossible to separate content from container in the case of Science, even if you are right that science is "out there" in the sense that Nature is "out there".

But as human beings, don't we always encounter science in the form of principles and ideas distilled from experience and observation?

Of course all human beings survive and thrive on technology, whether or not they are conscious of the scientific principles underlying them.

Is there, however, a question being begged when you assert that the Thais did not "imbibe the value of English as a language of science" until AFTER the scientific infrastructure had been established there?

I believe there is a deep public misconception that somehow science is all mathematical equations and molecular realities. But that is only AFTER one has thoroughly imbibed the enfolding language.

But I tell you, before the scientific publishing of papers full of equations and the reception of awards, Science is basically Story-telling and detective work.

Anonymous said...

ah, djb, story-telling is basically a political activity.

we go back to the debate raised in eons ago in filipinovoices: science has its own technical register, best demonstrated by observation and experimentation. i could be deaf and still be observant, and not know the king's language. all i need is for you to bring me to the laboratory, where the filipino scientist can make da nang dada, while i (assuming, am a thai) will start planting and modifying your rice. quietly at that. and when i have enriched myself, then i will begin to learn english so i can buy my airline ticket from outsourcing companies based in the philippines.

how do i figure mcluhan? simple, for me the MEDIUM is the LABORATORY, in ANY language. djb, you are wont to equate medium=language. i already pointed this out in the past: in modern education, medium can take many forms already. the term medium of instruction is not necessarily the language of instruction.

i do undervalue the importance of publication sharing in english. but in science, that comes as an anti-climax since mostly the science works have already been demonstrated. it's basically just an after-thought intellectual masturbation. excuse this ticklish connie-ish ejaculation. oops.


Anonymous said...

i meant, i DO NOT undervalue the importance of publication sharing...


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

No one disputes the unity of form and content, of medium and message, but the assertion that an appreciation of a English as a language of science comes only AFTER a given people have "gained the confidence that they can do science" insists on a false dichotomy between form and content, between medium and message.

Yet, what more proof do we need that many languages and cultures--not just English and the "West"--have produced "science", than all of human history?

But we must NOT deny that in this era, in OUR era, English is a really good way to go!

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

Where you say you undervalue the importance of publication sharing in English "as an anti-climax since mostly the science works have already been demonstrated" -- you are indeed telling the Truth, unselfconsciously!

Not only that, this is a very naive view of how Science is actually done in the real world. Like most human activities, Science involves mass communications among many different scientists. The era of Lone Scientist discovering something in the wild unknown is long gone. Science is now "Big Science".

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...


Just think of the practice of the Science of Medicine. Think of how doctors and hospitals relate to biochemists, pharmaceuticals, scientists, academics, and major institutions of learning and discovery.

so you think once someone shows that a heart transplant is feasible then since the science has been demonstrated that's it? Everybody knows how to do it. No need for English or demonstration or teaching or further evolution of the surgical and medical techniques?

Don't go to culinary bloggers and professional trolls for scientific information, INE.

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

Story telling is not basically political. Story telling is quintessentially a HUMAN activity. So is Science.

Are there any animals that do story telling and science, other than homo sapiens?

But masturbation is common throughout the animal kingdom, including Filipino bloggerdom. But not here, INE.