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Ben Nebres, National Scientist. Photo courtesy of Malacañang Photo Bureau.

“President Benigno S. Aquino III confers the Order of National Scientist to Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J. during ceremonies held at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall, Malacañan Palace. Fr. Nebres received the Presidential Medallion for his achievements as mathematician, educator, mentor, and administrator and for his contributions to education and social reform.”

Official  Gazette, Office of the President of the Philippines

Something is definitely wrong in the conferment of Fr. Ben Nebres as a National Scientist. Why so?

Let us read his citation. He received the honor for “his achievements as mathematician, educator, mentor, and administrator and for his contributions to education and social reform.”

He is an educator and an administrator. As a matter of fact, he was the former President of the Ateneo de Manila University. But an educator and an administrator do not make him a scientist.

He is a zealous social reformer. He is a Jesuit after all. But a social reformer does not make him a scientist either.

That leaves us with being a Mathematician and a mentor.

I doubt if he had mentored a graduate student, the only mentoring that matters when you are a scientist. But if he did, where are these students now?

Nebres is a Mathematician alright. But does he have an impact on his field?

One does not need to go to great lengths to check Nebres’ research impact. Your scientist friends, who have ISI Web of Knowledge access, can easily give you the information – number of publications and citations, average citations per year, and even the h-index. (The h-index is one of most widely used bibliometric indicators to measure a scientist’s impact.) [1]

Nebres has five publications of which 4 are research articles and 1 he writes as an editor. His average citation per year is 0.20 while his average citation per item is 1.60. He was last cited in 2008.  Before his paper on Mathematics education in 2001, his last publication was in 1972. This makes me wonder how he even became an Academician! (But that’s another story.)

His h-index is 2.

For comparison, a theoretical physicist at the National Institute of the Philippines less than half the age of Nebres has these numbers: number of publications, 18; average citation per item, 6.61; and h-index, 7. I don’t see this physicist being conferred the Order of the National Scientist in the near future. Heck, he is not even in the radar outside the Physics community!

Nebres was a Mathematician. He does not deserve being a National Scientist. Malacañan’s choice disappoints and puzzles me.

I have nothing personal against Fr. Ben.  But he would have gained more respect had he declined the award. He does not need this honor after all.  (A horror of an honor that is similar to Carlos J. Caparas’ National Artist conferment.)

Who should be a National Scientist then?

For starters, one must be an excellent scientist (read: scientist). The science community labored hard and quarreled harder to provide appropriate quantitative measures of the impact of a scientist.  While these measures are certainly not fault free, they give a first order look at his impact and his over all standing among his peers.

The first step in choosing a National Scientist therefore is to be as objective as possible. Is he really an excellent scientist? What is his scientific history?

The next thing to look at is his contribution to the development of his immediate science community. Questions like: How many graduate students did he mentor? or Did he by assuming a position in an institution increased its the research productivity? or Did he do something such that young scientists can easily pursue a degree in Science? These are tangible things that will leave lasting impressions on future scientist.

The last thing that should be considered is character. He may not be a saint but at least not a murderer.

The role of a scientist in nation building is very remarkable. Being a good scientist by itself is being a nationalist.

What is a National Scientist to me? He should be a good SCIENTIST role model for the bright young Filipino.  The one you will look up to and try to emulate to be one good scientist in the future.

I am not looking for an Einstein or a Lorentz.  Although it’s a bonus  if our role model is like Bardeen.

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[1]  A scientist has an h-index of h if h of their publications each have at least h citations and their remaining publications each have fewer than h+1 citations.  

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