Senate passes bill institutionalizing ‘Balik Scientist’ program of DOST

The Senate on Monday, Nov. 27, approved on final reading a bill which seeks to institutionalize benefits and incentives for scientists, engineers, and innovators of Filipino descent residing overseas to encourage them to stay in the country and work for national development.

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Senate Bill No. 1533, also known as the Balik Scientist Act, was principally authored and sponsored by Sen. Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV. It was approved on third and final reading with 13 affirmative votes, no negative vote and no abstention.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Joel Villanueva, Richard Gordon, Grace Poe, Sherwin Gatchalian, JV Ejercito and Cynthia Villar also served as co-sponsors of the measure.

Aquino said the measure would institutionalize the Balik Scientist Program, which was first launched in 1975 “to bring back Filipino scientists, engineers, and technology entrepreneurs to work in various fields, including heath, food and agriculture, information and communications technology (ICT), and even alternative energy.”

“It is about time that we institutionalized and strengthened the Balik Scientist Program so that more brilliant Filipino minds residing abroad can help our nation move forward into prosperity,” he said.

Among the benefits, incentives and privileges to be made available to Balik scientists under the program are tax and duty exemptions to importation of professional equipment and materials, exemption from licensing or permitting requirements, free medical and accident insurance “covering the duration of the engagement awarded by the Department of Science and Techonology (DOST), reimbursement of expenses for baggage related to scientific projects, and even exemption from “renouncing their oath of allegiance to the country where they took the oath.”

Grantees can participate in Grants-in-Aid (GIA) research and development projects of the DOST with an initial lump sum research subsidy of P500,000 for short-term program, P500,000 to P2,000,000 for the medium-term program, and P2,000,000 for the long-term program, in accordance with relevant government rules and regulations and the need of the program involved.

The benefits also include special working and non-working visas, a round-trip business class airfare from a foreign country to the Philippines “exempt from local travel tax,” and DOST-subsidized visa applications.

Aquino said the bill sets different incentives and benefits for Balik scientists who would either work for the Philippines under a short-term program (minimum of 15 days to maximum of 6 months), a medium-term program (more than 6 months but not exceeding 1 year) or long- term program (1 to 3 years, subject to DOST renewal).

The bill also mandated additional benefits and rewards for “long-term” Balik scientists, such as the grant of special non-immigrant visas to the scientist, his or her spouse and their dependents as well as exemptions from requirements like immigration clearance certificate, alien employment permits, and payment of multiple entry fees.

Under the bill, long-term Balik scientists awardees would enjoy relocation benefits, such as support in securing job opportunities for the spouse of the awardee, and admission support for the children of awardees in preferred schools, relocation allowance and monthly housing or accommodation allowance, and funding for the establishment and development of a facility or laboratory.

According to Aquino, the array of benefits and incentives aim to help address the lack of scientists working in the Philippines, caused by their exodus for greener pastures abroad.

During the public hearings held by the committee on the bill, it was discovered that the Philippines has only 189 scientists per million population, far from the ideal target of 380 per million population.

Aquino said that the country “pales in comparison” with other countries. For instance, he said, South Korea and the United States have 5,300 and 3,500 scientists per million, respectively, while Malaysia has 2,000 scientists per million.

“We cannot stress enough that science and technology, engineering, and innovation can help solve some of our nation’s biggest problems, like disaster preparedness, effective delivery of healthcare and other social services, hunger and nutrition, poverty and unemployment,” Aquino ended.

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