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Jason Tan Liwag: Gusto Kong Bumoto Para Sa Mga Siyentipiko

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

This interview features Jason Tan Liwag, a graduate student at University of the Philippines - Diliman and the Founding President of Queer Scientists PH.

How did you become a youth leader in the sciences?

I’m currently finishing my Master of Science in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at UP Diliman and I noticed that people — whether they’re outsiders or involved intimately with science locally or abroad— tend to glamorize science. As a graduate student myself, I’ve been faced with the ugly truth that research is a field of unspoken failures, especially in the Philippines where it is much slower and more expensive to commit these mistakes.

In many visibility campaigns globally, the faces of Filipino queer scientists and science-allied professionals were strikingly missing. Science has often been weaponized against the LGBTQIA+ community: either by people who had deeply-ingrained anti-science sentiment brought about by misinformation or those who have co-opted science to fuel their homophobia, transphobia, and all-around bigotry. In the hopes of countering this movement, I created Queer Scientists PH in 2020.

I started with a question: Where are the stories of queer Filipinos working in STEM? The initiative began as a visibility campaign that highlighted the narratives of queer STEM workers globally. We didn’t want to focus on just the triumphs but we also didn’t want to further create stigma against STEM. Social media has a tricky relationship with hardships: there are people who crop these stories out and create an illusion of a fair world, while there are those who fixate only on suffering and that creates a dehumanizing environment. We wanted to find a way to humanize Filipino queer scientists and science-allied professionals to show the complexity of engaging in the field, the different paths that people take towards becoming STEM professionals, and the plurality of the experiences and identities of people engaging in STEM.

The initiative only blossomed to what it is now thanks to the efforts of my four other collaborators — Rey Escosio, Jay Fidelino, Almira Ocampo, and Nikki Santos-Ocampo — and our volunteers. I think we’re really small right now and we’re working towards expanding and deepening our relationship with our contributors, but we’re fine making these small strides as long as it’s all forward.

I’ve been lucky enough to be honored by Attitude Magazine as one of the 101 LGBTQ Trailblazers Changing the World Today. According to the citation written about me, it was thanks to my collective efforts in science, art, and community-building. It’s quite weird to be on a list with such powerful and influential individuals. I know so many other queer Filipinos in the sciences who are doing far more impactful efforts, especially at the grassroots level. Still, I look at that more as a challenge for myself to not only do better but to also seek out other people who are actively making a change. There are a lot of them! You’d be surprised.

What are the most pressing issues that concern Filipino scientists and how do you address these issues?

Procurement and funding delays, wage inequities, and the contractual nature of science in the Philippines is definitely one of the most pressing issues. I cannot begin to tell you how many scientists are living off of whatever savings they have because of funding delays. They work hard to meet deliverables, but they get their pay months or even years later. It’s no secret that science takes time and that the rewards are few and far between, but these conditions make engaging in science dehumanizing, if not impossible.

People must be reminded that scientists are everyday Filipinos too and a lot of the ‘normal’ struggles are our struggles too: the pay inequities, gender-based violence, housing issues, lack of proper healthcare, etc. It prevents a lot of great scientists from flourishing because they have to think about whether or not they’re going to survive the next day or month.

A lot of it is rooted in issues with legislation and quite honestly, we’re not always sure how to address that. It’s more than just simple acts of representation. Even if researchers have a seat on the table, sometimes that is just for show. It pains me to say that facts and results aren’t always at the forefront of creating legislation; most of the time, political interests trump research and clear statements from those affected are often swept under the rug. We’re so used to navigating systems instead of fixing them.

Still, we find value in collecting these stories of not only injustices but also triumphs. What begins as anecdotes can turn into larger discussions of culture and politics, positionality and privilege, and maybe somehow this can contribute to changes in legislation. There are scientists out there who are creating actual change and one of the ways we’re trying to help is just by amplifying their stories, sharing their efforts, creating networks that can hopefully share insights on the struggles. We’re still trying to find ways to bridge those gaps and to communicate that people can see not only the problems but also a future wherein there are solutions to them.

As a youth leader in the sciences, what characteristics are you looking for in a national and local government candidate? How would these characteristics enable the candidate to address the issues that you mentioned?

Personally, I look for candidates who 1) prioritize inclusivity and equity in their policies, 2) emphasize transparency in their practice, 3) accept criticism to improve on their governance, and 4) surround themselves with competent, trustworthy, and truthful leaders.

Transparency is a huge thing for me because we need to know, as individuals but also as a community, what is happening in order to make informed decisions for ourselves but also to help others. People won’t trust the process if they can’t trust the people, and vice versa. We’ve seen how open data and a culture of data sharing have helped save money and cut down on processing time by allowing public scrutiny and independent assessment. The government can’t do everything but there need to be systems in place so that they have an idea of where to come in.

I can’t stand officials who cannot accept criticism or who keep surrounding themselves with the same incompetent, privileged people. It’s not just about experience or getting a degree. When competent people do not consider the input of the communities affected, that still won’t translate into good policies. Democracies aren’t built by singular efforts.

As a youth leader in the sciences, what policies and programs do you want national and local government candidates to support? Which of these do you want to be prioritized?

Apart from solving this pandemic, I really hope that we begin to explore the issues with the procurement process (RA 9184), customs, and the bureaucracy. I wrote in a previous article about how an experiment that takes a day in other countries takes three months to do here and for 3-20 times the cost. This has plagued research forever and it affects so many other sectors in ways that we know, but maybe don’t have on-hand data for yet. We can’t just keep ignoring that this becomes a sink for talent and for money, especially now that research and the infrastructure around it have been so crucial to how we get out of this pandemic.

We need to begin institutionalizing science advisory groups. Institutional memory has been key in how and why other countries have minimized casualties from the pandemic and is the reason why they have reopened. These “natural” disasters like storms, earthquakes, and even the pandemic are things we can prepare for and minimize the casualties around. But the policies feel like they’re either not communicated to the grassroots level or they’re swept away with every change in the administration. I hope there’s a way to change that by putting science and the scientists behind it at the forefront of the decision-making process.

We also need an anti-discrimination bill/SOGIE bill. People need to understand that this bill concerns everyone because everyone has a sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, and they can be actively discriminated against through those. I can’t just remain at the ordinance level because that puts people outside of those localities at risk. CNN Philippines Life assembled 11 great articles that center on this from different perspectives. I hope people learn that we’re all the better if we have that bill.

Should candidates with these characteristics and priorities succeed in #Halalan2022, how do you envision the Philippines and the lived realities of Filipino scientists in 6 years?

I hope we’re out of a pandemic. I hope researchers, academics, administrators, and everyone involved in STEM are paid equitably and on time. I hope there is a shift from output-based research to more community-based research and I hope that there’s infrastructure and funding to support that. I hope members of the LGBTQIA+ community are more empowered to take their place in society and I hope that there are fewer barriers for them to do so.

Electing the right candidate doesn’t necessarily guarantee all of those things. But it does make those imagined realities closer to actual reality. I envision a Philippines where we’re all working together towards that from our respective vocations and communities. There’s so much to be done and the government can’t do all of it, obviously. But they can provide us with the structure to know which gaps need to be filled. But they have to do something about the problem first.

Until then, I can only hope.

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