Philippines: Science and politics

12 Aug, 2019
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Science and politics

AUGUST 12, 2019

Science and politics 1

IF there are two characters that would make the strangest of bedfellows, these would be the scientist and the politician.

One cultivates an insensitivity to public opinion and pursues leads relentlessly with the rigidity exacted of him by the scientific method; the other thrives on popular support and will be careful not to strike raw nerves. But it would be naive to insist that science and politics should be completely disentangled.The scientist must pursue his or her scientific pursuits amid the very concerns with which politicians are bothered. In fact, at one time, it was public policy to be suspicious of scientists, just as it is common policy today to be supportive of their ventures.

Dengvaxia is a case in point. By all accounts it should have been hailed as a medical breakthrough, a triumph of scientific genius over a common tropical scourge — hemorrhagic fever. Many parents in the Philippines bear the indelible scars of grief from losing a child to this death-dealing plague. But Dengvaxia was purchased in bulk when PNoy was president, its widespread (some say, reckless) distribution and use, promoted by his men and women. So, it bears a yellow taint and that color is just not in favor these days. The congressional hearings on Dengvaxia, it is clear to me, were motivated as much by a desire to do justice to the supposed victims of the irresponsibility of the vaccine’s use as by an irrepressible preparedness to strike a blow at a hated regime.


Pressed by the urgency of the situation and the alarming increase in fatalities, President Digong has announced his “willingness” to go for Dengvaxia. The relevant principle in medical ethics is proportionality. When no other remedy or cure is available, even that which is experimental may be resorted to, despite the risks involved, as long as there is due proportion between the risks and the benefits anticipated. Dengvaxia, in fact, is no longer in the experimental stage. It could not have been marketed worldwide had it lacked the necessary licenses and clearances from regulatory agencies — at least in other jurisdictions. I think that it is ethically correct to return Dengvaxia to our hospital shelves — this time, perhaps, with more circumspection, care and attention to its proper administration. And we can also do without the allegations of profiteering by government functionaries in relation to its importation.

What is clear though is that while politics can stymie the growth of science and even pervert it (as in the horrendous “clinical trials” that were part of the charges tried at Nuremberg), politics can likewise be the key to its promotion and flourishing. Research calls for hefty capital outlay — and when government is unable to provide this, then scientists will turn to private enterprises. So it is that it has been keenly observed that the growing influence of multinational corporations in such enterprises as pharmaceuticals is such as to pose the very real possibility that one day they may relegate state regulation and interference to annoying “static.” Climate change provides vivid demonstration of the unavoidable engagement of politics and science in each other. Science supplies States and supranational organizations with the data — but only political entities and politicians can harness the power to bring about the necessary, urgent, perhaps even belated changes. The tenuousness with which States have agreed to an almost negligible reduction in global climate is one such example. Congress will soon deliberate on the national budget — the President has already approved the budget proposal of budget department. But how much will go to DOST? How much will go to the researches of the Department of Agriculture and of state universities and colleges? All of these political decisions will shape the future of science in the Philippines — and those eager and brilliant minds that cannot take the horse-trading and the duplicity will just hie off to other, more salubrious climes!


One final thing: The political support of science is indispensable, but science thrives best and most felicitously when it is left free by politicians to follow its own rules, its methods, its procedures, its hints and its leads. The political support without which science cannot flourish can never be one that enslaves it, puts it in political debt or taints it indelibly with a partisan hue. Science needs all the politics it can get to keep it free — as free as the bounds of its service to humanity will allow it to be.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 12th, 2019 at 5:41 pm and is filed under Latest News.

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