Penman No. 353: Our Very Own Indiana Jones

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Penman for Monday, May 13, 2019

 

IT ISN’T every day that a Filipino scientist captures the imagination not only of his own people but of the world, but last month, this amazing feat happened, putting Filipino science squarely on the global map.

The “feat” wasn’t just one event but the culmination of many years of painstaking work, research, and analysis, culminating in the publication of the results in Nature magazine of a cover article titled “Out of Asia: A newly discovered species of hominin from the Philippines,” attributed to an international team including Filipino archeologists Armand Mijares, Eusebio Dizon, and Emil Robles. The article announced the discovery of what the team named Homo luzonensis, a new and previously unknown hominin or human-like species. (For a laymanized version of the article, see here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01152-3.)

The discovery consisted of about a dozen small bones found over several years in Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, which taken together indicate that an early form of man lived here at least 50,000 years ago. Dr. Mijares, an associate professor with the University of the Philippines’ archeological studies program who led the international team, had been excavating the area since the early 2000s. In 2007, the digging paid off with the discovery of a foot bone “dated to 67 thousand years ago  (which) provided the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Philippines,” according to Nature. The discovery radically questions and reforms previous theories about human migration in Southeast Asia.

As exciting as the unearthing of luzonensis was, almost just as important was the fact of Mandy Mijares—a UP Manila graduate who took his PhD at the Australian National University—getting published in Nature, which stands at the very pinnacle of scientific publishing. As another well-known UP scientist and a good friend of Mandy’s, the geologist Dr. Mahar Lagmay, puts it, “It is every serious researcher’s dream and struggle to publish in this journal. Out of the 15,000 manuscript submissions that the editorial board of Nature receives a year, only 1,000 or approximately 7% are accepted for publication. Only 2% of science journals have an impact factor of 10 or higher. In 2017, Nature’s IF was 41.57—equivalent to publishing 40 articles in most other scientific journals.”

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Mandy also happens to be a brother of mine in UP’s Alpha Sigma fraternity (that’s him in the middle, with me and Smart founder Doy Vea), and last week, the brods honored our very own Indiana Jones in a public program at the Asian Center, where he also presented his findings. I was asked to say a few words, and here’s part of what I said:

I had been hearing about this discovery from Brod Mandy in my private conversations with him over the past two years, and I knew he was sitting on something literally groundbreaking but even I had no sense of the magnitude of his project until I saw it on the cover of Nature. In my lectures on science journalism, I often refer to Nature as the one of the summits of scientific publishing. It’s hard enough to get published in, and much, much harder to land on the cover of. That’s what Mandy Mijares has been able to do.

But bragging rights aside, the joy I share with Mandy comes from seeing scientific inquiry and intellect recognized and rewarded in an environment that has become increasingly indifferent if not hostile to intelligence, indeed to the search for truth. Sophistry and opportunism have overtaken scholarship and honest labor, and political hacks purport to know and dispense the truth better than scientists and artists remote from the centers of money and power.

The discovery of luzonensis reaffirms the role of a university not just in its own country but in the world at large—in spearheading and supporting the pursuit of knowledge, even knowledge that will probably not add one percentage point to GDP or have any practical application we can think of at the moment, but which enlarges our understanding of ourselves as humans.

The question that luzonensis poses for us in the 21st century is, how much farther have we truly come along as humans from our hominin ancestors, and what have we done with our humanity? Are we any less crude, any less brutal? Could it be that luzonensiswas more caring for its own kind than we are today with ours? What have we done with our larger brains, our gift of language, with which we have become so facile that we can now distort the truth without batting an eyelash and even look smart and smugly smile and be praised by others for how cleverly we get away with murder? Faced with a creature that may have had no appreciation or even need for truth, reason, and justice, what does it say about us today, many millennia later, at a time when a good many of us seem to be in the same position, and let me repeat—with no appreciation or need for, and perhaps just a flickering memory of, truth, reason, and justice?

I’ll stop here before my sadness gets the better of me and beclouds the brightness of the hour, which properly belongs to Homo luzonensis and its brilliant discoverer. I’ll end with our fraternity’s exhortation to seek excellence in all endeavors—or I should say, in all good and just endeavors. Mabuhay ka, Brod Mandy!

Penman No. 329: Focus on the Intangible

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Penman for Monday, November 26, 2018

 

THIS TOOK place last month, but it can’t be too late to congratulate the University of the Philippine Visayas for organizing and hosting the 2ndInternational Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Iloilo City last October 25-26. This gathering brought together participants from all over the country and from around the world to focus on an aspect of our cultural, social, and even economic life that we literally don’t see—our intangible heritage, meaning our beliefs, customs, and practices that form a deep spiritual and intellectual resource that we should be tapping into, but have neglected in favor of Facebook and such other attractions of this digital age.

One paper, for example, by Sashah B. Dioso of the Center for West Visayan Studies of UP Visayas, dealt with the role of indigenous beliefs in resource conservation and sustainability in Pandan, Antique. The paper cites how an old man was walking home one day when it suddenly rained. He then “cut two banana leaves to serve as umbrellas for both of them. The latter was heard speaking to the banana that he needed the leaves for them not to get wet and then thanking the plant including ‘kon sin-o man ang rugyan’ or whoever was there (referring to the taglugar). In that situation, the value given to a plant and the respect accorded to the taglugar were evident.

In general, the indigenous beliefs discussed contribute to the communities’ collective sense of protecting their environment and helping sustain natural resources. The practices mentioned share a common characteristic which is to use natural resources and the environment sustainably. Failure to observe due care in using natural resources may earn the ire of the spirits dwelling in the environment. The taglugar, considered guardians of the environment, are portrayed by these beliefs as active protectors of the environment that constantly watch and give the due punishment to transgressors (while also giving) rewards to people who use natural resources in a manner that is acceptable to the spirits (in terms of) a good catch and bountiful harvest.”

There were dozens of these fascinating reports and presentations on offer at Pagtib-ong (Hiligaynon for “to lift up”), and I was sorry that I couldn’t stay for the two full days, after giving a brief talk at the opening.

I had the privilege of attending the first conference last year and found it extremely informative, provocative, disturbing in some ways at it should be, but also giving reason for hope, in that we clearly have not forgotten the importance of those parts of our cultures and societies—parts far removed from the limelight of entertainment and social media—that define who we are.

Those engaged in ICH know that the life of a cultural scholar and researcher can be a very lonely, thankless, and sometimes even dangerous one. They sometimes wonder if their hard work matters to anyone else, or if it will bring real change to people’s lives. They forego more lucrative pursuits chasing after obscure languages and songs that will never make the Top Ten, or even the Top 1,000. The agencies they apply to for funding ask if their work has any practical economic benefits.

This conference was a welcome and warm reminder that they were not alone, that they all belonged to a community of people who understand, almost intuitively, what many others choose to ignore.

Studies like theirs go into the nerves and the bones—indeed, the DNA—of our culture, of what holds us together as peoples deep beneath the skin. The intangible heritage they are retrieving and preserving is an invaluable resource that we can all draw upon in our respective countries and communities around the ASEAN regionNo one else can do this but universities like UP and UPV, and their counterparts around the region, and scholars and cultural workers who believe fervently in needs other than the physical and the economic, those immediately tangible and measurable bottomline concerns that governments and administrations typically prefer to support.

But there is a cultural bottomline as well that we have barely plumbed, that very few people seem to be interested in, forgetting the fact that many of our national and regional problems are cultural in nature, stemming from our ignorance of who our people truly are and what they truly need and want.

This conference happened at a time when truth and human rights have been devalued all around the world. The delegates met in the face of a creeping train of anti-intellectualism, of suspicion and outright hostility towards teachers, students, and universities who dare to speak to power and to challenge falsehood.

This was all the more reason for ICH workers to persevere in what they do—in recovering the threads of our nationhood and weaving them into a coherent narrative that not even the fractiousness of our politics today can tear asunder.

 

Penman No. 193: Knowledge as Capital

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Penman for Monday, March 28, 2016

 

 

THE UNIVERSITY of the Philippines (UP) campus in Cebu City hosted the second presidential debate a couple of Sundays ago, and with education on the debate agenda, the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate. UP—so far, our only “national university” so designated—may be more than a hundred years old, but it continues to grow, particularly in places like the Visayas, Mindanao, and Central Luzon, where the demand for quality higher education is as great as ever.

Not too many people may have been aware of it, but in preparation for the debate—and indeed for the next national administration—UP President Alfredo E. Pascual commissioned a study by the university’s think tank, the Center for Integrative Development Studies (CIDS), to look into where we are in the regional scheme of things and how we can expect to catch up and compete with our more advanced neighbors.

Copies of the paper—titled “Knowledge-Based Development and Governance: Challenges and Recommendations to the 2016 Presidential Candidates”—were provided by UP to the staffs of the presidential candidates in advance of the Cebu debate. But knowing most politicians’ propensity to go for the sound bite and dwell on the personal, I tend to doubt if more than one or two of the candidates or their staffs found the time and the focus to read it.

It would be a pity if that indeed were the case, not only because of all the work that UP put into the paper (CIDS was backstopped by the offices of the President and the Vice President for Academic Affairs), but because of all the opportunities for development that we will likely miss, again, if our political leaders don’t heed what our top academic minds are saying.

The full text of the paper can be found here: http://www.up.edu.ph/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/20160315-UP-Knowledge-Paper-Final.pdf. For the benefit of our readers (and maybe the odd politician who will read this), I’ll unpack the technical jargon and get to the core of what the paper says and proposes.

It opens with an indisputable premise: Education is indispensable for economic development. More education means less poverty and income inequality, because it drives innovation and productivity, and helps people adjust to new challenges and opportunities.

But of course we already knew that. In a society like ours, we all look to education as the way out and the way forward, which is why our people slave for years overseas to put their kids through college. So sacred is education to the Filipino family that every candidate for public office, especially the Presidency, feels duty-bound to extol its virtues.

To be fair to the present administration, it’s put its money where its mouth is, for the most part. The study notes that “Since Benigno S. Aquino III assumed the presidency, government expenditure on public education has enjoyed annual increases. Out of the education sector‘s PHP364.9 billion budget for 2015, PHP43.3 billion was given to state universities and colleges—a 13.8 percent increase over the 2014 allotment…. Over PHP3 billion was made available for scholarships under SUCs and more than PHP2 billion for scholarships administered by the Commission on Higher Education. A total of PHP316 million (roughly 0.09 percent) was earmarked to fund research.”

That sounds good, but sadly it’s still not enough. The rest of our ASEAN neighbors spend an average of 5 to 6 percent of their GDP on education, but we try to make do with 3 percent. That’s why even our best universities lag behind their global and regional counterparts. The study notes that “In 2014, the University of the Philippines ranked only 8th out of the top 10 universities in ASEAN. In 2010, the Philippines ranked 89th in the global Knowledge Economy Index, far behind Singapore, which placed 19th.”

With all the new phones, computers, and call centers we see around us, we might be led to believe that the Philippines has become a high-tech haven, but that just isn’t so. (“We may be No. 1 in voice operations,” I once heard President Pascual say in relation to BPOs, “but were just around No. 9 in non-voice, which is where there’s more value-added. We need not just call center agents, but software engineers!”)

In its summary, the study observes that “Our level of technology remains low in quality and scale, and concentrated in low-productivity sectors. To catch up and move ahead faster, we need to raise our scientific and technological skills, which only better and more focused education can achieve.

“This calls for massive government investments in high-level knowledge capital—the so-called ‘suprastructure’ of economic growth. This human capital will create a knowledge-based economy driven not just by brawn but brains, tapping into one of our richest but least developed resources.”

In other words, and to put it plainly, we need more brainpower—more nerds, if you will—of the kind who can innovate, produce, do trailblazing research, and network with their global peers. That kind of knowledge can reap sizeable benefits for our economy, as it’s done for Singapore, China, Korea, and a host of other countries who’ve invested in their “suprastructure.”

But PhDs don’t come easy and don’t come cheap. UP argues that our government should have a plan to produce them systematically. The object of our educational system shouldn’t just be producing hordes of college graduates who can’t find good jobs, but graduates in fields and with skills that the economy actually needs. The best of them should be sent abroad for advanced degrees, and then brought home with sufficient incentives and an environment conducive to research. The UP paper goes even farther and recommends that in areas where we lack expertise, world-class professors and researchers should be enticed to teach here and work with their local counterparts, in the same way that Singapore was able to considerably shorten its learning curve.

While much of this will occur in science and technology, the paper wisely notes that “Because values are important in setting the right path to growth, the promotion of science and engineering should be closely integrated with the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities to ensure the holistic development of the Filipino.”

To spread the work and its benefits, the UP paper envisions a hubs-and-spokes model of development anchored on regional centers of excellence in certain fields—possibly even other national universities beyond UP.

There’s a lot more to be found in the study that was UP’s gift to the candidates—and thereby to the nation—but whether any practical good comes out of it will depend on the political leaders who govern our fortunes, and, ultimately, on us who vote them into office.

(Kindly note that as a “think paper” subject to further discussion, the study mentioned here does not necessarily reflect the position of the UP academic community as a whole, but rather of the researchers and offices involved.)