The Explainer: The Science of Progress

That was Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant, Beaker, from the Muppet Show. Wikipedia tells us that in an Internet poll sponsored by the BBC and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Honeydew and Beaker were voted Britain’s favorite cinematic scientists. They beat Mr. Spock, their closest rival, by a margin of 2 to 1 and won 33 percent of the 43,000 votes cast.

For my generation of Filipinos, we liked Dr. Honeydew, too. But have you ever wondered why scientists, whether fictional or real, reach celebrity status elsewhere, but not here at home?

As The Explainer marks its 50th episode tonight, Join us in observing Science and Technology Week.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Hot for Science


On July 5, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published an interesting article by Jerome Aning. It’s title was, “What are ‘hot jobs’ in Metro Manila?” It presented the results of a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics. The survey covered 448 large companies in Metro Manila, drawn from a list of the country’s top 5,000 enterprises.

Now you may be asking what a “hot job” is –is it a job that makes you sweat, or that makes you sexy? The Bureau said that “Hot jobs” are  high in demand but hard-to-fill , because of a shortage of qualified applicants.

And so, here, ladies and gentlemen, are the top ten hot jobs in Metro Manila. Drumroll, please…


computer programmer


financial analyst

human resources development manager

information technology technician





sales/marketing representative.


But that’s not all, and to me, this is where the list gets pretty interesting. According to the survey, other “hot jobs” include… drumroll, please…

In Mining and quarrying: geologist and mining engineer
In Manufacturing: assembler, autocad designer, engineer, machinist, welder, safety officer
In Electricity, gas, and water: electrical engineer, lineman, plant operator
In Construction: engineer, fitter, plumber, skilled laborer, TIG pipe/place welder, tinsmith
In Wholesale and retail: administrative assistant, artist, baking technician, pharmacist, sales clothing technician
In Hotels and restaurants: HR manager, restaurant manager
In Transport, storage, and communications: account manager, mechanics, IT specialist
In Financial intermediation: actuarian, auditor, bookkeeper, programmer, underwriter
In Real estate, renting, and business services: architect, engineer, environmental scientist, trainer
In Education: clinical instructor
And finally, in Health and social work: medical technician, nurse, technician, respiratory therapist.


I think that on it’s own, this list is interesting. Parents and students alike, will find it useful. But for tonight’s show, what I’d like to point out is that many of these hot, hot jobs are in science and math-related professions: geologists and all sorts of engineers, for example. The need for fitters, welders, and tinsmiths, too, points to our need for the kind of skilled labor that builds the things engineers design and need.


Just the other day, carried a Philippine Star story on Rodolfo Quiambao, a Filipino engineer named among the 50 outstanding Asian Americans in Business for 2007. The Outstanding Asian Americans in Business award is given by what our consulate-general in New York calls the “prestigious” Asian American Business Development Center (AABDC).

What’s interesting to us is that Quiambao, for once, received recognition here at home ahead of being recognized abroad. Quiambao received the the “Pamana ng Pilipino” Award in 2002, and he’s a co-founded the Filipino American Association of Engineers (FAAE) that assists Filipino engineers through mentoring and accreditation.  As president and CEO of Rudell & Associates, Inc., he presides over a firm that provides engineering, design, and project management services for nuclear and fossil generating plants, sub-stations, transmission, distribution, commercial facilities and infrastructure projects.

Just the sort of guy, mind you, that our country will need to produce more of in the coming decades. Let me tell you why.

First of all, let’s connect some articles you might read in the papers in the morning. Such as these articles from another partner paper of ANC, The Business Mirror.


You might read that “Call centers craft plan, eye .5M agents,” which tells us that from the current 200,000 jobs in call centers, the industry hopes to have half a million agents employed by 2010: with about $8 billion dollars in yearly revenues.

Or you’d see that “More medical transcription firms go to RP,” because while 4,000 Filipinos are already medical transcriptionists, the target for this year is actually for 7,000 jobs in this line of work. And yet think of the possibilities: an industry spokesman says that if our country were to get just a 1% share in the industry, we’d need 22,000 medical transcriptionists: and they could be trained straight from high school.

Your first instinct upon reading these articles might be to say, hello, that’s wonderful, more new jobs for kids. And yes, it’s exciting news indeed. But all this growth requires a shrinking commodity: electricity. Haven’t you heard of the increase in brownouts in Quezon City? In the Visayas? And growing talk that we’re going to need more power, sooner rather than later? Call center agents and transcriptionists require lots of wattage, and we’re going to need to produce more voltage.

That means power plants, and the people required to run those plants. And includes taking a look at a formerly taboo kind of power plant: nuclear power plants. And nuclear plants require nuclear scientists –which means we need to look at beefing up our supply of scientists in general.

More on the the taboo subject of nuclear power, when The Explainer returns.


II. The Nuclear Option


That was from the 16th Season of The Simpsons. Stephen Hawking makes a cameo appearance, proving just how iconic he and his ideas have become in pop culture.

You know, Explainee, Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time” has sold well in Philippine bookstores.

You might have also heard of a book by one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” an entertaining romp through the history of the various sciences, and where they are now. This goes to prove, I think, that a healthy interest in the sciences exists among the Filipino public.


In fact has started “Inside Science,” a blog where you can read up on Philippine-related science developments. We’re flashing the url on your screen right now.

But we have a long way to go, and an issue that’s not going to go away, will rise or fall, depending on how literate we, the public, are when it comes to the sciences.

All the juice –that is, the electricity- we’re going to need, means we’re going to have to consider what’s often scarily called “the nuclear option,” seriously.


What’s the nuclear option? A thorough discussion can be found in The Business Mirror’s June 27 editorial of the same title.


Our government’s decided that the steep rise in oil prices last year, requires revisiting the option of nuclear power. Actually, the Ramos administration began the process of taking a second look at nuclear power. In 1998, its Nuclear Power Steering Committee said as much. Explainee, would you like to read what it said?

Nuclear energy will remain as an option that the Philippine government may take in meeting the increasing energy demand in the future, unless other alternative energy systems would come within the framework of availability/sustainability, affordability and environment capability of energy supply.


That was in 1998. According to the editorial, during the Asean Summit in Cebu, President Arroyo pointed out that regional leaders had agreed on the need to expand the energy options of our part of the world: from biofuels to “civilian nuclear power.” Meanwhile, as Energy Secretary Lotilla’s pointed out, short and medium term energy options will be explored. These range from indigenous and renewable sources, such as oil and gas, biofuels, to solar and wind power. But long term, going nuclear’s back on the table.

But wait –you might ask, why was the nuclear option taken off the table in the first place?

You know the story. A big oil crisis hit the world in 1973, and President Marcos decreed the construction of a nuclear power plant at Napot Point, in Morong, Bataan. At that point, Marcos’s decree made perfect sense.

Explainee, have you ever noticed that egg-like structure in the vicinity of UP Diliman? Well, that was the product of the Philippine nuclear program that began way back in 1958, with the creation of the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission. The fifties were a promising decade for science; today’s Department of Science and Technology had its origins in 1958, too, when the National Science Development Board was established.

Anyway, so construction of the Bataan Nuclear plant began in 1976, and dragged on to 1984, when it was finally finished at a cost of 2.3 billion dollars. Delays were caused by the Three Mile Island accident in the USA requiring a redesign. The Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union made the nuclear option highly unpopular after Edsa. Complete, but politically impossible to use, the power plant and its gigantic debts –the biggest single obligation of our republic- have been a sore spot for 30 years.

Cronyism and disasters abroad took the nuclear option off the table for a generation.

Recently, after decades of paying it off, our country’s debts for the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant finally came to an end. The problem is, of course, that after paying off a bloated debt, the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant continues to sit there, idle. Designed to produce 621 megawatts of electricity, it’s never produced a single watt of electricity and most probably never will. Right now, the debate on what to do with it ranges from proposals to finally use it, to suggestions that it be turned into an eco-tourism attraction.

Some have proposed actually starting up the Bataan Nuclear Power plant. When it was first built, it’s closeness to earthquake faults and Mount Pinatubo were used as reasons to prevent the operation of the plant. But we had a massive earthquake and a massive eruption of Pinatubo in the 90s, and the plant survived them both just fine.

For a closer look at the whole debate, you might want to refer to an article in The Business Mirror titled “Is RP ready to use nuclear power?” Among its interesting details is the view of a Japanese nuclear power expert . Explainee, care to read it?

Japanese nuclear energy expert Sueo Machi supported the idea of considering the BNPP as a possible site and have it checked for its viability. He told BusinessMirror that the Philippine government could even save money for preparing a site because there is already a ready site, the BNPP.

He said that Japan has 55 nuclear power plants and despite the earthquakes that visited the country, no nuclear accident has occurred because of the robust design of the nuclear reactors.



But for now, let’s go back to the same paper’s editorial. One way or another, we’ll need more scientists. Explainee, would you like to read a portion of the editorial?

But the main focus in the preparation [for the nuclear option] is on human resource development. The mothballing of BNPP and the depletion of the number of PNRI experts—due to retirement, lucrative foreign jobs, or their switching to nonnuclear plant technology—means we have to start hiring and training new experts, and retrain those who have switched to nonnuclear reactor jobs. Sadly, the mothballing of the BNPP also saw the disappearance of the masters degree course in nuclear engineering at the University of the  Philippines, depriving our talents of a local academic source.


Which, by the way, Explainee, would mean a new lease on life for that nuclear egg in UP Diliman! Anyway, let’s go on, would you like to read the next paragraph?

PNRI’s de la Rosa said in a story in this paper’s Science page on June 25 that a nuclear reactor would need 150 regulatory experts. But the PNRI only has 35 to 40 of such experts in its stable. Moreover, 150 people are needed for research and development, and 230 to 500 others for utility.


Now that’s just a possibility, mind you. But it’s a necessary next step if we’re to remain competitive. Singapore will always be a generation ahead of us in terms of scientific research and development, but if we want to catch up, the time to invest in it, is now.

And that’s what we’ll be discussing with our guest. How we can improve science education, and where we should focus, when we return.


My view


Tonight marks the fiftieth episode of this show. I hope you’ll agree that we’ve tried to bring up scientific topics from time to time, if only from a layman’s point of view. This show is made possible by the wonders of technology: the internet that lets us maintain a blog, the cable network on which this show airs, and so forth.

I always begin this show by saying, The Explainer is about why issues are issues. One reason is, we sometimes end up arguing about a subject, without bothering to go deeper into why two sides on any subject exist. Only upon deeper investigation can we find out, if disagreements are based on real differences of opinion, or from an unfortunate, because it’s imperfect or imprecise, understanding of what’s really at stake.

We waste too much time arguing if a Filipino really invented the fluorescent light, was responsible for the moon buggy, or invented the pontoon bridge used in World War 2. Or we get defensive over Filipinos being responsible for sensational computer viruses. We spend too little time asking whether we’re producing enough scientists, engineers, and the skilled labor they require to build the instruments they use.

To teach language, or the social sciences, you need only up to date books and dedicated teachers. Teaching science requires investing in infrastructure. Can we do it? The real question might be, when do we begin?


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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