Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

You folks heard of the “blinking guy” meme? I literally made that incredulous face when I read that a member of Congress had called for a probe of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) for its supposed failure to warn the public of Taal Volcano’s eruption this last week.

Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr. of Cavite’s Fourth District filed a resolution that claimed that the Phivolcs response was “defensive” instead of “proactive,” and so “due to lack of information, while Taal is already manifesting increased volcanic activity, people still traveled towards it, while those who were already near were shocked to see the smoke spewing from it and had to immediately flee under the danger of ashfall.”

Afterwards, this seemingly opened Phivolcs up as a target for anyone able to broadcast their blame game, such as a browbeater masquerading as a journalist, and a local government official who is putting his constituents at risk. These open castigations are not only ill-timed (distracting Phivolcs from its more urgent task of continuously monitoring the volcano), but are also extremely ill-advised. Netizens were quick to point out several things. The behaviours of volcanoes (including eruptions), even with preceding indicators like tremors, can still be extremely difficult to predict. But, Phivolcs has nevertheless been constantly coming out with regular bulletins about Taal’s volcanic activity, beginning in March last year when it detected some unrest. And like many government agencies that do not enjoy budgeting priority, Phivolcs was doing the best it can with its limited manpower and resources.

It is heartening to see the public stand up for Phivolcs and its scientists. This defense is even more valuable because they have come for people who, by whatever dint of personal and professional circumstance, have taken on as their primary task this crucial service for a disaster-prone country like ours. It has come for those who, through state public works, have chosen to commit themselves to serving the Filipino people. And these are exactly the people that we need to boost and uplift.

Let me explain. We know that in the past years, opportunities for young scientists to pursue academic and/or research careers overseas have been opening up like never before. And not a few of them have taken that option. And why not? I know that many of them sincerely tried to look for work and other productive ways to use their profession in the Philippines. But low salaries, poor institutional support, and other structural disadvantages stack the odds against them. Besides, taking up an “international” position and platform is often seen as more prestigious. Don’t social and mass media frequently uphold Filipino professionals abroad who have “made it”?

As an educator and a government employee, this issue hits close to home. Our scientists and scholars (especially those of junior standing) are burdened enough as it is. For every one of my peers who has opted to leave I know of three, four, five more others back home who continue to struggle with limited grants, contractual jobs, and yes, clueless (if not malicious) authority figures who, because of a sense of importance inflated by patronage politics and semi-feudal culture, find fault in instead of empathize with their fellow civil servants. For every researcher or academic that is driven away (and yes, threats of investigation can be demoralizing enough to be tantamount to “driving them away”), the next generation of Filipinos will lose out on their insights or the chance of being trained under them.

Scientific achievements certainly must be lauded, especially those accomplished by our fellow kababayan. But at this moment our most resounding support must go to our scientists at home who have taken on these (albeit very, very difficult) basic “chores” – in Phivolcs’ case, of waiting, monitoring, and grappling with a public crisis. And all this under a very different sort of spotlight than being on the glamorous brink of some paradigm-shattering breakthrough or discovery. Their simple fortitude in their work is exactly what we need at a time when facts are treated as opinions, and lies are peddled and bought faster than a base surge. That many ordinary Filipinos rallied to their defense is indeed inspiring; it bodes well for our youth and our budding scientists, who may be wondering about what the future may hold for them.

Having said that, the imprudent Congressional inquiry must immediately be withdrawn, and irresponsible pronouncements quickly rectified by whatever means possible. Otherwise, it is not only folly for this moment, but it is folly for the future. Its consequences will be just as disastrous as those of the natural kind.

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