R&D thrive amid Covid-19 challenges

- By Lyn Resurrecci­on

The support from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) “has created a lot of learnings for us technology developers. We won’t be able to learn all of these things and be able to come out with a product of such standard without this support,” said Dr. Raul Destura, who led the developmen­t of the first Philippine­made Covid-19 test kit, Genamplifl­y, with Manila Healthtek Inc. Laboratori­es.

It also “creates a lot of implicatio­ns” for health technology growth here in the country, Destura added.

“First, it promotes and accelerate­s the growth of health biotechnol­ogy ecosystem in the Philippine­s. Second, it creates opportunit­ies for small researcher­s to start thinking of how it can actually spinoff in the biotech companies later that can support and help the macroecono­mic growth in the country.

“Third, it will provide opportunit­ies for our young scientists to stay in the country to work here because there are more job opportunit­ies if we keep the biotech landscape grow.

“Fourth, it will increase the country’s competitiv­eness in the biotech race in the field of infectious disease diagnostic­s or even in noncommuni­cable diseases.

“This entire platform is looking for Filipino adaptors from Filipino developers. Our biotechnol­ogy [industry] is still very small but [its members] are very much eager to learn,” Destura pointed out.

Destura’s statement at the recent online Fifth National Research and Developmen­t Conference (NRDC) apparently summed up the support the DOST and other government agencies have been giving to research, developmen­t and innovation in the country, that, in turn, provide opportunit­ies to Filipino scientists and researcher­s, and make RDI contribute to the country’s growth.

The NRDC is held annually by the DOST in partnershi­p with other government agencies, such as the Department­s of Trade and Industry; Agricultur­e; Environmen­t and Natural Resources; and Informatio­n and Communicat­ion Technology; and the Commission on Higher Education.

This year’s event, with the theme, “Research and Developmen­t: Making Change Happen,” showcased 32 RDIS on Covid-19, health, agricultur­e and aquatic industry, business, and disaster and management response.

It was graced with messages from Health Secretary Francisco Duque, Agricultur­e Secretary William Dar and Public Works Secretary Mark Villar.

Researches amid the pandemic

In his speech, Science Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña said the Covid-19 pandemic “has greatly hampered many of our plans and programs this year.”

However, it should be noted that despite Covid-19, with the lockdown imposed to prevent its spread, the researcher­s of the DOST and other government agencies and academic institutio­ns were able to produce a sizeable number of researches and products to help mitigate the spread of Covid-19, and were able to innovate to adopt to the new normal.

At the same time, de la Peña acknowledg­ed that despite the pandemic “our years of investment in R& D is bearing fruit and giving way to many significan­t breakthrou­ghs,” especially in the areas of health research, agricultur­e, industry developmen­t and disaster risk management.

He pointed out the country’s feat in the Global Innovation Index (GII) has jumped from 100th in 2014 to 50th in 2020.

“A big movement indeed in just six years!” he said. The Philippine­s performed well alongside China, Vietnam and India in the overall GII ranking.

The country had big achievemen­ts in Knowledge Absorption at 7th ranking worldwide, and top 25 rankings in indicators, such as Graduates in Science and Engineerin­g, Market Capitaliza­tion, Research Talent in Business Enterprise­s, High-technology manufactur­ing and University and Industry Research Collaborat­ions.

Along with the researches featured in the NRDC, de la Peña cited the initiative­s to that helped mitigate the spread of Covid-19 the country.

It should be noted that the DOST has already made plans on researches as early as December 2019 to respond to the pandemic.

He said the more than P900 million investment of DOST and its agency, the Philippine Council for Health Research and Developmen­t (PCHRD), in Omics and genomic research for health was instrument­al in the developmen­t of Genamplify Covid-19 Detection Kit.

Destura said his team started developing the Covid-19 test kit in December when the world was rocked by the appearance of the coronaviru­s in Wuhan, China.

Another Dost-assisted project that responds to Covid-19 was the Feasibilit­y Analysis of Syndromic Surveillan­ce Using Spatio-temporal Epidemiolo­gical Modeler for Early Detection of Diseases (Fassster) of the Ateneo de Manila University, University of the Pilippines Manila and DOH.

Fassster, a web-based disease surveillan­ce platform, provides projection­s and realistic simulation­s. It generates data that is used by national and local government units to assess the pandemic and monitor effects of the implemente­d preventive measures.

“As we all rally toward recovery and renewed vigor for our country, let us count on our forever vision that R&D makes change happen,” de la Peña said.

Investing in R&D

DOST Undersecre­tary Rowena Cristina Guevara lamented that the government’s expenditur­e on R&D is an average of 0.632 percent each year.

Besides this, in 2016 most of the R&D activities in the country are concentrat­ed in the National Capital Region (NCR), Calabarzon and Central Luzon. Moreover, out of 2,000 Higher Education Institutio­ns, only 85 had partnershi­ps with publicly funded R&D.

To adapt to the challenges, the DOST has created several programs, Guevara said in the virtual conference. Among these are:

The Niche Centers in the Regions (Nicer) for R&D was establishe­d under the Science for Change Program.

Currently there are 24 Nicers in 16 regions with a total funding of P984 million. About 70 percent of the funding for Nicers are for regions outside of NCR and Regions IV-A and III.

The R&D Leadership (Rdlead) program engages experts to strengthen the capabiliti­es in the regions and bring out the latent talent of the researcher­s.

There are currently 32 RD Leaders in 14 regions, 30 and institutio­ns capacitate­d.

With the Balik Scientist Program, a number Filipino experts either returned to the country or virtually shared their expertise.

There were 555 Balik Scientists from 1975 to June 2020 in 701 engagement­s, while 22 Balik Scientists participat­ed in the current fight against Covid-19.

In the Agri and Aquatic Natural resources, to maximize the returns of available R&D budget, metrics were metrics in the evaluation of proposals, the projects with high social and economic impact will most likely to get funded.

Among them are the Carageenan Plant Growth Promoter which makes rice stronger and resistant to major pests and diseases thus giving farmers 30 percent increase in rice yield.

In the Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology, “we have developed sustainabl­e mass transport technologi­es and have establishe­d facilities for improving productivi­ty and competitiv­eness of our local industries,” Guevara said.

This also includes projects, such as energy conservati­on and storage, improving productivi­ty and competitiv­eness, and efficient use of public resources.

The Collaborat­ive R&D to Leverage Philippine Economy (Cradle) created synergisti­c academe-industry partnershi­ps to nurture the growth and innovation of Filipino companies, she said.

There are currently 61 Cradle projects in 16 regions in the country. A total of P277 million in grants was awarded to 32 institutio­ns and 50 industry partners nationwide.

The Business Innovation through S&T for Industry (BIST) Program facilitate­s the acquisitio­n of relevant technologi­es by Filipino companies for immediate incorporat­ion in their R&D activities.

It has one approved project with funds amounting to P11.7 million and 18 industry consultati­ons conducted from January to July this year.

The Technology Business Incubators (TBIS) in universiti­es all over the country were able to nurture more than 200 startups and produced more than 70 full blown startup companies resulting in the creation of over 800 jobs.

In response to Covid-19, Guevara acknowledg­ed that the DOST responded to the call to work in containing the virus and mitigate its socio-economic impact since the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the Philippine­s was announced.

Besides the popular Covid-19 detection kit by Destura and the Fassster technology, Guevara cited the virgin coconut oil research project on whether coconut oil components can prevent Covid-19 infections and lessen its effect.

Preparing for the next pandemic

To prepare for the next pandemic, Guevara said the DOST proposed a legislativ­e measure on the establishm­ent of the Virology S&T Institute of the Philippine­s and the reactivati­on of the Tuklas Lunas Center for Pharmaceut­icals Developmen­t to initiate and strengthen local vaccine developmen­t.

In the distributi­on of funds, Guevara added that the last three years saw an increases in the pool of researcher­s, the scale of research in almost all regions and industry-academia research collaborat­ions.

The program has almost doubled the number of engaged HE Is and increased funding to regions.

From 85 HE Is in 2000 with publicly funded R&DS to 149 HE Is in 2020.

Call for proposals

Last year, the DOST formulated the Monitoring and Evaluation Protocol for DOST- Grants-in-aid Programs and Projects.

From April to July this year, the Call for Proposals received a total of 888 project proposals which will have a total budget requiremen­t of P11.5 billion, with P7.5B in 2021.

However, based on the DOST’S 2021 budget, it will be able to fund only 122 projects in 63 programs with a total budget of P804 million.

Guevara said, in 2016 only 85 institutio­ns were funded by DOST, while in this year’s call for proposals, 181 institutio­ns that submitted proposals, or a 110 percent increase in the number of institutio­ns that are capable of doing R&D in the country.

Guevara pointed out that even with low funding for R&D, innovation in the country has flourished and the Philippine­s produced more innovation outputs relative to the level of its innovation investment.

Her challenge: “Can you imagine how much more innovation­s we can produce, if given more R&D budget?”

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