Should Scientists Care What Non-Scientists Think? | A Filipina Scientist Weighs In


Hello Science Fans!

Last week, my research team and I were in Gubat, Sorsogon to conduct a workshop on mangrove technologies for local stakeholders, with DOST-PCAARD. We were there to talk about Crabifier, a mobile app for species identification in juvenile mangrove crabs that our lab helped develop.

To hear some of our adventures, please watch this video:

But as we went through the discussions for the day, I was moved by the generosity of our participants. They freely shared valuable insight about our app, but also about their traditional practices. After the workshop, they brought us into their homes and farms, and even took us to sea that same night to capture some aliens – the term they use to refer to crab megalopa.

I find it amazing how I learned so much about potential sustainable practices — and how the scientific community can support our fishers — in these three days. Perhaps more than the months we spent refining the app prior to this trip.

My research adventures have taken me from forests to farms, from rivers to oceans. And as I was able to explore and understand a huge of variety of ecosystems, I have come to realize that none of our technologies and innovations would matter much if we do not support and get the support of the local communities in the area. They are, after all, the primary stakeholders of the environment. And this is true in whether were in forest, oceans, farm lands, or cities.

But I have a soft spot for the ocean…

The Philippines is blessed with rich marine biodiversity, we are home to the center of the center of marine biodiversity. As an archipelago, we have bays and coastal waters covering an area of 266,000 km², and oceanic waters covering 1,934,000 km². 

With 36,289 km of coastline, it is not surprising that the country supports more than 3% of its population in the fisheries sector that is valued at Php 302.83 billion. The fisheries sector, however, is beset with challenges: from unsustainable fishing practices to the threats of climate change.

I believe that’s where research and technology can help. Thru the creation of practical innovations that can help our farmers and fishers maximize their production given their limited capital, we can aid our fisheries industry.

We have put a lot of work in developing technologies to help achieve sustainability for food and agriculture, but sometimes their failure is not in the technology itself but in how it is perceived by the people.

This perspective is shaped by how a lot of the research work I’ve done has been connected to problems encountered by fishers and farmers who I’ve met on the field.

I’ve been studying mangrove crabs since 2012. I started out in the lab of Dr. Menchie Lagman in De La Salle University. Our initial goal was to do population genetics in the Philippines, find out the genetic connections among the alimango populations in our country. But going on field made me aware of other problems encountered by our fishers, and there was an issue with species identification at the juvenile stage. This affects our fishers greatly as fishponds are typically stocked with purchased juveniles. And since the three dominant species in the Philippines have varying growth rates and market prices, cannibalization and lack of optimized conditions limit our productivity.

This led us to the use of molecular methods to create a non-molecular approach to identifying juvenile alimango. With collaborators from the DLSU’s College of Computer Studies, the method was transformed into the free mobile application called Crabifier. It makes use of convolutional neural networks to detect subtle differences in the carapace shape of early developmental stages.

A convolutional neural network is a computer algorithm that’s often used in image recognition, that can eventually learn and detect differences in physical features in photos, videos, or even live feeds.

For the past three years, our CrabTECH team has been busy validating the app and other technologies, and deploying them to various fishing communities. We have been lucky that fishermen from all over the Philippines have been very welcoming to our team. Their feedback tells us that our app is most useful for traders to confirm that they are selling the correct species, and also for those who are starting out in the business.

And we’ve seen many well intentioned and well designed innovations fail, not because of their inherent design, but through the rejection of the communities that they were trying to help.

In some cases, the problems arise because our country, maybe even the world, has fostered a culture that distrusts science. Misinformation and fake news are everywhere, and many sectors of society would rather believe in social media posts than scientists themselves. Our community — the STEM community — feels alien to some of our stakeholders because of our tendency to speak in technical terms. Our tendency to speak as if we know all the answers have led us to be viewed as elitist or arrogant by some.

Imagine, whenever I go on field, the people I work with are much older than I am, they have been growing mangrove crabs since before I was born. They know the ocean like the back of their hands, why would they believe in what I have to say?

And that’s why it’s important the we build relationships with these communities.

After all, modern interventions can only go so far. We have to recognize that a lot of the answers to our sustainability problems already exist, and are known by the people who have lived and grown with our oceans and lands.

It’s actually quite frustrating how our traditional techniques — our scientific and cultural heritage — is barely documented.

And so our team has transitioned to become custodians of traditional practices of our local mangrove crab fishers and growers. We listen to their stories, we watch their practices, and whenever we can, we try to replicate them in the lab — and validate their efficiency.

But the key here is, in order for us to be heard — we have to make an effort to see these communities, to hear them, to recognize them for the valuable contributions they have made to society.

So yeah, I’m still processing all the new things I learned for Gubat, Sorsogon. But I love how the contents of this video has made it to a talk I gave to the 2022 DLSU Research Congress. Now, I just have to go back to checking papers and computing grades of my students. A lot of our research ventures are in a state of limbo as we’re waiting for budgets to come in, for us to defend to new proposals, and to see where we go next.

So wish us luck!

Some helpful links:

Philippine research databse: https://skms.nrcp.dost.gov.ph

DLSU Research Congress FB page: https://www.facebook.com/DLSUResCon

Mangrove crab innovations of our team: https://crabtech.ph

Thank you so much for dropping by!

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact me, your resident Filipina scientist, in the comments section below.

And remember, when in doubt, always use your (con)science!


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