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People – not research!

October 7, 2006

“THIS is really a bad time to spend for research especially of this assessment type. Assessment/management technology has yet to prove itself- it has never benefited Filipinos for decades! Do you really want to help? Are you a scientist? If you are truly that caliber, it is either that already you know what to do now or you really don’t. If you are not ready with skills now, sorry, but those in need can’t wait nor pay further for your research just to enable you to help,” exclaimed Dr. Rex Baleña on the issue of research for Guimaras.

He is the first Filipino scientist with a PhD in ocean physics. In reality, while others faltered, he already offered an immediate contingency mitigation plan, which has guided courses of actions following the oil spill. Since then, he has done accurate analyses and pro bono write-ups and lectures.

In an interview with Panay News, Dr. Baleña comments on the more controversial issues. The people may benefit from his truly multidisciplinary skills in tackling the problems. Besides, he is a plain talker, doesn’t beat around the bush, and is capable of giving updates outright. He agreed on specific conditions that his ideas are not quoted out of context nor taken personally.

Q: Do you think that another scientific assessment study of Guimaras is necessary?

A: Haven’t we had enough for decades already? Such an undertaking is too arbitrary to be useless, very costly, and substantially convertible to unnecessary honoraria. Let some insurers or adjusters do their job. We can countercheck. Besides, who has not seen enough of the active media coverage? Certain good professionals and educators can do the necessary re-assessment of the entire situation in a day or so and, pro bono. Don’t detour the funds. Our Priority 1 (see MRS plan) is to attend to human victims and their rehabilitation. Pour all money here in this effort. A pragmatic solution will do for the rest of these “delicate” or “cute” organisms that any other fellows may like to attend to.

Q: Is it true that nothing can be done now about the oil spill?

A: More than ever, I strive to emancipate our people from misleading information. I distributed copies of MRS (Mitigation Response System) just for anybody to see where in a coordinated effort he may contribute, of course, within his means and time frame. The keyword is HELP. We cannot feel responsible for those who don’t or can’t help. Neither are we responsible for those who “help” by exploiting the mishap for personal economic gains.

Q: Can we survive without fish? Please give a full explanation.
A: I said this many times before: One can live fully on land products. These are so abundant all the way from the mountain tops (fruits, herbs, nuts, root crops, vines, etc.), to the valleys (rice, legumes, vegetables, poultry, piggery, dairy/cattle farm products, etc.), streams and rivers (fishes, cockles, crustaceans), down to the beaches (integrated poultry, fish farms, backyard plantations, etc.) – just name it, and there’s something from land that is certain to eat! I reiterate clearly: The water environment has more important uses, for instance, being the primary link to weather and climate, which affects us all, dead things or alive. The implications, in fact, are the overwhelming significance of the oceans. Remember: The oceans are but our ALTERNATE source of food, even if you insist that such is the only use of these environments. The keyword is ALTERNATE. To illustrate, should you say that a car is able to travel everyday because it has a SPARE tire? You see, the promotion of the marine environment as some sustainable source of food is grossly misleading. Edible matter in the oceans is scarce to begin with, and I urge that we come back to our senses and be considerate of people’s money. Already, billions(!) have been expended on decades(!) of resource assessments and management studies only to come up with arbitrarily evolving, if not old or trite, results? In that case, we could have used the research money instead to build many hospitals and buy medicines- meaning, so many other good purposes other than a seemingly endless research.

Q: Does that mean we should not do research anymore?

A: I won’t say that. We must do so only at the right moment and for 1) real relevant problems and 2) with the right people to do it. Take this example: One microchip company produces several copyrights per day. Such is one reason why we can come up with new computer models almost every several months because, certainly, such company can supply the workable technology at an even faster rate. Then recall two computer buffs “hiding” inside a garage for 2-3 years and coming up with our first operational personal computer. Consumable research products! Yes, it may be a matter of good choice of relevant problems matched with truly competent, conscientious researchers. In our case, we have assessed our marine environments, fishes, beaches, and all, for decades, and what seem to be the net results? Ask around: Who among us can buy most of the fishes and shells that we like to eat? Is your bangus now down to, say, P20 per kilo? Do you find mud crabs, sugpo, and first-class mackerels in your kitchen, or mainly in foreign hotels? Do you celebrate your family picnics, say, with diwal, lapulapu, sea bass, items so claimed as products of “highly successful” cultures? Even if a poor man has the money, which of these mentioned items are readily available to him? Are all these the indicators of the so-called food sustainability for Filipinos? Or, are endless projects, travels, seminars, and honoraria, seemingly, the only sustainable manifestations? Finally, what can these research projects do now for the people of Guimaras, Iloilo, and Negros? Shall we rely on boodol fights to convince a hesitant community to eat fish? Who will brave the odds now and answer all these questions in front of taxpayers? Now, you see, it’s up to all of you to assess whether or not we have the right ingredients for research. Recalling that microchip company, as rough guide, a research line repeated for more than about 2-3 years and continuing, with no relevant results, can be a candidate for scrutiny.

Q: We learned that certain MS and PhD researchers make up for their classroom deficiencies by spending more time on research. In particular, who can be good researchers?

A: That depends on the problem at hand and the specialty of a professional- yes, regardless of what you said. However, in general, my opinion only, trained (classroom) academicians are well-prepared to do research. Ok, perhaps, what I mean is that it is much easier to train an academician to do research than for a researcher to become an academician. And, this is besides the fact that most academicians already are adept in research. That’s a good question! I recall making this distinction to colleagues.

Q: For Guimaras what qualifications do you recommend?

A: I see. You can, of course, choose all you want. The oil spill is a multidisciplinary problem. If cost is the main issue, then you may take advice from private companies: It is cost-effective to hire one who knows altogether how to operate a computerized control panel, lead a meeting, represent the company, or go down to fix a machine, etc. than hire several people with limited expertise on each of these tasks. Indeed, oftentimes, no matter how good a cook you are, having all the separate ingredients yourself will not guarantee that you can concoct the delicious batchoy, right? It’s cheaper and wiser for you just to buy the batchoy!

Q: On another controversy, do you eat fish nowadays? Why or why not?

A: No, I don’t. It is reasonable to suspect contaminated waters, and no one is showing the appropriate sampling methodology to convince me otherwise. Recall what sorts of bunker oil components we have in our waters by now and how they have distributed themselves via currents, dispersants, and certain biological mechanisms like magnification. Already, I have so many impurities in my body, and I don’t need additional carcinogens and the like stuff. Certainly, I may someday find myself somewhere in Romblon or Mindoro; if the price is right and the fish attractive, I might bring some to Iloilo. I will not like others to quote me but, certainly, I have warned my family and relatives to refrain from marine products until further notice.

Q: You were not present in a recent close-door forum of a group of scientists. Many have gotten curious why you were not part of any science oil team or committee. Why is that so?

A: I cannot appoint myself to any organization or team. I can rest/work alone or with anybody, classroom, field, or theory, and I don’t want my freedom and ideas strangled. I like to think that I belong to the bigger cluster of people- among us all- and just be one useful (hopefully, responsive) citizen. I’ve always been like that. Call me a “nonconformist,” a “science activist,” or whatever you like, but I am myself- a FREE critical thinker.

Q: It seems that so many are claiming to be “oceanographers” nowadays. You are the first PhD in physical oceanography. Who else are the real professional oceanographers in the Visayas?

A: [Chuckles]. Well, I believe we are only two in UPV. The other fellow is Dr. Rodolfo B. Baldevarona, who specializes in biology. He planted about 14,000 mangroves covering some 25 ha of Taklong Island circa 1998-90. Of course, please allow anybody to claim as fellow “oceanographer” anytime he wants. I am quite happy about that and just how my profession is becoming appreciated also all over the country. Someday, I hope that we all arrive at a consensus of accepting oceanography, ocean science(s) or marine science(s), as the appropriate background science for our water environments. After all, oceanography is relevant and both encompassing and comprehensive in scope.

Q: You are not worried at all that others may just pick you brains and use your ideas?

A: No. In the contrary, that’s nice because, one day, we will all think in the same way.

Q: This one is interesting. Everybody scrambles for money, even projects and so on. Do you have something in the making?

A: As a matter of fact, yes. I like to solicit huge funds for a very long-term study, say, with Phases 1 to12, to assess if the ocean, from top to bottom, really has water. How’s that for a silly start? [A frivolous statement made just for emphasis.] Seriously… while so many are in misery, I am not inclined to divert funds from their mouths into another research carousel. No more studies- just help. Again, if you are not capable of helping people this way now, simply, you are not capable. By the way, the opportune time for pro bono help from good researchers is now!

Q: Some say that you no longer do government projects. Is it true?

A: Not exactly. But conditions are quite frustrating as unrewarding. For instance, I did some basic works way back in 1994 to address real problems on circulation, pollution, mariculture, productivity, and so on. One 1994-95 model was meant really for disasters like navigational mishaps, tsunamis, and oil spills. But no one seemed interested in its applications. Already, tsunamis and two oil spills have occurred. Now, I sound like a broken record singing the same significance.

Q: What further thoughts can you share about the cleanup? The tanker is still a hot issue. You were the source of a decision on what to do with it. Any more comment?

A: I said my piece a long time ago when I suggested removing the source quickly citing two sample methods. I am nauseated now by the many talks about it. I believe that, whosoever will do the recovery/containment task, will have the appropriate skills and knowledge on how to do it. Let’s stop talking and leave it to them. On the other hand, I noted the very long delay even in asking for international help. That fateful delay was fatal.

Q: At about 622 meters or so, you know, several experts say that the bunker oil cannot flow much at such freezing depth, so is it okay to just leave the tanker there?

A: Cannot flow? Of course, it’s quite a chill down there, say, in the vicinity of ~12 ?5°C, but you have been shown surface slicks for weeks, right? Even a very high-flying instrument like a satellite could “see” those slicks from hundreds of kilometers above, but still you did not believe that the oil down there did flow? [Chuckles]

Q: What to you are the reasonable tasks about these popular mangroves?

A: Still within the MRS framework, a common-sense approach: Just CLEAN and REFOREST. Now, how much to clean? Here is a simple guide: If you think that, already, you are spending time, money, effort, and care wiping the leaves and barks of a mangrove tree, robbing surfaces of an inter-tidal rock, or shifting through layers of sand, etc., more than what you can afford to the runny nose of a crying toddler, think again. Chances are you have gone out of bounds. Hence, just clean enough, and allow some mangroves to die if they must- they have served their good purposes. Also, allow nature to do the rest of your job. Bear in mind also that far more oil drains from continents than all the spills combined. Well then, afterwards, when there is an opportunity, plant new trees. See? That is quite simple- and cheap. Neither proposals nor researches were needed. On the other hand, you can do it the harder, longer, and most expensive way, i.e. the ridiculous way: You want to save just about every creature on this planet, ironically, while forgetting people? Submit to that advocacy and you will soon oblige us humans to get rid of antibiotics then die in lieu of saving the viruses and bacteria. Don’t get me wrong here. I am just most concerned about humans now. Or, you might like to lead something like a 10- to 20-year project; renewable…you know, just about enough to starve us all. Now, you see why our science world may have gotten out of shape. Think critically. Make a choice.

Q: What can be one good lesson brought about by the oil spill?

A: That’s a wonderful question! Beside the frustration that I mentioned just a while ago, one GREAT lesson: The disaster taught us more about ourselves, as Filipinos, on how we display our FINEST as well as our WORST during difficult times when our country needs us the most. Indeed, in my small way, I begin to criticize myself: Am I of any worth to people in distress? Did I produce useful scientific papers or plain toilet papers? Can I look back after retirement and claim in full sincerity that at least a minute of my life was spent on helping others? I think you can examine yourself in the same way. Someday, when a grandson on your knee asks you what you did during the Great Oil Spill of 2006, what is it that you can tell him? You want to tell him proudly that you were somewhere else wrestling with dogs to get a messy piece of the bone that they altogether bite? That’s despicable!

Q: In a nutshell, how will you advice our leaders?

A: We all want priority to our hapless people. We are not even done with the present oil spill. Please prevent any other kind of spill from happening- say, “money spill”? The potential consequence, the financial wastage and especially the mangled human values, are the hardest and costliest to “clean up.”

Q: Your message to the affected families?

A: Hold on. There’s hope.

Q: Any more observation or comments?

A: Maybe it is high time for us to admit the immense value of oceanography- unfortunately, whether we like it or not. By the way, no offense intended on what I’ve said. I wanted just to present viewpoints for your critical thinking. Nothing must be taken as “personal.” We open our minds, we altogether learn. (PN, Oct. 6, 2006)

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