National Innovation Day was just a few weeks ago. The objective of the occasion, according to the Commission on Higher Education, was to promote “public awareness and national support for innovation.”
Even for a developing country like the Philippines, science, technology and innovation certainly play important roles. Yet in the context of the looming national elections, it may raise questions whether these things should be neutral when it comes to governance and politics.
In 1987, Robert Solow received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to economic growth theories. One of his conclusions was that a major driver of economic growth is technological innovation. While this is something qualitative at a glance, advancements such as those in flight and transistors certainly opened up more economic opportunities and enabled further applications down the line.
Professor Paul Romer, another recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, added to this by identifying research talent as key factors in technological innovations. These factors are examined together in economics professor Richard Nelson’s book on National Innovation Systems. These systems are essentially government and private institutions that influence innovations.
Science and government
With these three considerations, the connection of science, technology and innovation to the government is clear. Leaders wanting to push economic growth in the country ought to consider research and development (R&D). Governments also directly influence R&D through education and training. Policies that jeopardize education also undermine science and technology, and deprive industries of much-needed research capital.
Finally, the government is a major actor in a country’s innovation system, especially with regard to technology policies, fiscal tax, funding, etc. These factors can affect whether scientific research can eventually bring about technological advances for the community.
How then can science and technology be agnostic to government actions and politics if they heavily influence R&D? For 2021, while the Department of Science and Technology’s budget was increased from the previous year, this was still much lower than the budget it initially proposed. Government funding for R&D would clearly have an impact on relevant sectors and stifle innovation in underdeveloped industries.
Moreover, the government’s foreign partnerships may play an important role in stimulating innovation, and the Philippines’ foreign policy would directly affect this. These would include foreign direct investments to provide capital and skill-building, as well as strategic bilateral partnerships such as with the United States.
Science does at times need to take political stands because there are those who respect it and those who ignore it.
A timely example is climate change. Sparked by the release of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists from over 20 countries around the world went on protests to compel governments to take action.
Despite endless documentation, reports and research papers presented to policymakers, the bold steps needed to mitigate climate change in time are still unrealized. It gives rise to the question of whether scientists should play a bigger role in society and how much longer science has to remain equivocal.
But this is not the only time scientists have spoken up on politicized issues. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the Russel-Einstein manifesto appealed to world leaders to reject the use of nuclear weapons and “find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters in dispute between them.” A series of conferences immediately followed, providing a platform for many members of the scientific community to be recognized.
What’s almost paradoxical is that taking “political” stands requires rising above political influence. Conversely, remaining “neutral” means siding with politicians who neglect science. It’s not so much science trespassing into politics but political elements encroaching on science. When politicians label scientific arguments as partisan or propaganda, how can scientists and researchers remain silent? The problem is not science being political but rather people politicizing science.
In summary, innovation is deeply connected with governance and politics. It is therefore only right that those in science and technology advocate for leaders who will facilitate innovation and with it economic growth. Scientists and researchers should also be able to call out those who ignore or manipulate facts and evidence. At the same time, science should also support good governance and policies.
All that said, at the end of the day, science cannot be attached to a single political party, because ultimately—just like politics—science should serve the people and the world around them. —CONTRIBUTED