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Inquirer columnist elected to academy of science


12:27 AM December 2nd, 2012

By: Tessa R. Salazar, December 2nd, 2012 12:27 AM

Columnist Michael Tan

He’s a medical anthropologist, a veterinarian, a social scientist, the dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, and an Inquirer columnist.

Now, popular “Pinoy Kasi” columnist Michael Tan joins fellow Filipino scientists as an elected member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the country’s highest advisory body in matters of science and technology (S&T).

“Tan joins the elite roster of distinguished members of the academy [who] have the duty to promote scientific and technological findings for the betterment of society at large,” NAST said in a statement announcing Tan’s election to the academy.

Membership in the academy is decided through peer recognition, according to NAST, which now has 63 academicians and nine corresponding members, most of them abroad. Of its 63 members, 14 are considered national scientists.

Tan was cited for his “sustained outstanding scientific research, teaching, advocacy and development work,” particularly in his “consistent efforts to revitalize scientific research on and in the use of traditional medicine, develop rational drug policies, and [understand] the social and behavioral dimensions of HIV/AIDS prevention and of reproductive health promotion.”

The columnist, who has been writing “Pinoy Kasi” twice a week for 15 years now, said he has “always advocated scientists coming down from their ivory towers not just to disseminate what we find, but even more importantly, to learn what’s going on in the real world.”

Members of NAST and all its agencies dealing with S&T should tap into both old and new forms of mass media, Tan said.


“I’m not sure Facebook and Twitter are going to be very useful for science but I do feel more scientists should be doing blogs,” he added.

In a statement, NAST acknowledged the role that social media has in mainstreaming information and said that “many science institutions have already put their scientific data on websites and various social media for easy access of information.”  The academy, however, cautioned that social media would be “more interesting and relevant if it get[s] the right information straight from the experts.”

Asked on the “culture of evasiveness” toward media among members of the scientific community, Tan said that “there are scientists who are rightly fearful of being misquoted.”

Unfortunately, he added, mass media today, especially the broadcast media, are always looking for sensational sound and visual bites. In contrast, Tan said, scientists need to go into long explanations about context, research methods and the statistical significance of their findings, all of which won’t fit into the one to two-minute sound bites that broadcasters want.

Elitist view

At the same time, the columnist said, there are scientists who refuse to deal with media simply because they think journalists and the public are just not capable of understanding science. “I strongly disagree with this elitist view,” Tan said.

Tan, an anthropologist and veterinary doctor, was elected into NAST as a social scientist.

“I’ve had to work with many of the other sciences because my specialization is medical anthropology, which means I have to deal with health professions as well as the life sciences,” he explained of his multiple expertise. “The veterinary training was useful too: You’d be amazed at how we [can] understand humans better by understanding animals,” he added.

What is important in both developed and developing countries today is being able to work with other disciplines, Tan said.  “Solutions to society’s problems are rarely… found in just one discipline. I am glad to be working especially with health professionals because they have been the most open to crossing disciplinary boundaries. The UP College of Medicine, where I handle a medical anthropology degree program, has many interdisciplinary degree programs including bioethics, medical informatics, genetic counseling,” he said.

Work with NGOs

Tan said he started his professional life working with communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “Early on, I realized I had to relearn even my veterinary medicine. I was trained mainly for small animal practice [but] was thrown into the field [and had to deal] with carabaos and mestizo wild pigs and wild chickens! People were so dirt poor they couldn’t afford the veterinary drugs we were prescribing,” he recalled.

He ended up in health programs because the Catholic Church’s social action program didn’t know what to do with a veterinarian, the NAST member said.

“It didn’t have the budget to put up piggeries and poultry farms… so I was asked to do public health and to research on medicinal plants.  [This] meant I had to learn botany and then about culture and society,” he said.

Tan said his early involvement with nongovernmental organizations, especially those involved in community-based health programs, made him realize that people, even those with minimum literacy, can learn about science. “The programs I worked with involved training very poor people to do community health work, including TB (tuberculosis) prevention and control,” he said.

Arts and humanities

Writing a regular column has opened other windows as well, the social scientist added.  “Writing for the Inquirer pushed me to explore all natural and social sciences further, and to stray into arts and the humanities.”

At the same time, he admitted, writing about scientific issues within the limited space of a column has been a challenge.  “But I [also] believe that a good scientist must be able to explain issues and natural and social phenomena briefly and concisely,” Tan said.

Added the newly minted NAST member:  “I do look at burning issues but also avoid jumping on the bandwagon because I think our readers don’t want to open the op-ed page to see columnists writing about the same topic. I try to explore new angles from the social and natural sciences to look at social issues. Because my background is from both social and natural sciences, I do grapple constantly with questions of nature and nurture.”

That last is particularly relevant to Tan, who revealed that for the past eight years, he has been on his “latest, and most exciting, learning adventure: parenting.”

“[Parenting] has made me rethink what it means to be a teacher and a scientist,” he said.  “I am totally captivated and enthralled by the wonders of human development.  [At the same time, I am] saddened by the realization of how much potential humans have at birth, only to have that potential squandered by an uncaring society.”

First posted 7:32 pm | Saturday, December 1st, 2012

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