Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Whatever happened to computer science?

Over a span of two pages, the ICT roadmap talks about ICT competency and standard development. Mention is made of the National ICT Competency Standards which would gauge the skills according to Basic and Advanced Categories. There will also be an ICT Competency Assurance Body that would accredit and certify professionals. Finally, there's an ICT for Education plan that covers a range of programs.

And yet it's never really clear what types of standards we are measuring ourselves against. This vagueness is a major failing in itself. However, as I read through the program descriptions, I can't help but think that the ICT roadmap is gearing itself for the lowest common denominator in ICT capabilites in an effort to reach the widest possible audience, but at the expense of nurturing higher levels of expertise.

Most notable is the absence of any mention of computer science as a skill set to develop among its audience. Granted, not everyone can become a computer scientist, but even then it's not a field that can be ignored. We need researchers in the field of computer science if we are to move up the value chain of ICT.

Computer science is not about putting together business applications. Computer science is not about web design. Computer science is not, God forbid, about typing up documents in MS Word. Computer science deals with the thought processes behind the theoretical foundations of computer systems. Computer science is abstract and theoretical, and because of this, computer science is hard.

But computer science is also necessity. You need computer science in order to be able to get into the fields of cryptography, programming language design, operating system design, network hardware and software design, computer graphics, robotics, image processing, and bioinformatics. These are the high value work that brings in the investments, the international partnerships, and most importantly, national prestige.

Of course, there's the very old argument: we don't have those kinds of jobs here in the Philippines, so why bother? Ultimately, that's just a short-sighted perspective that leads to the vicious cycle of stagnation and defeatism. There's no point in developing computer science because there are no jobs of that sort here; and those jobs will never come here because we don't have computer scientists to fill those positions. Really, which is it going to be?

Given this environment, there are two imperatives in the ICT roadmap with regard to computer science:

1) Define a national program for computer science that the top schools in the country must implement. Different areas of expertise can be distributed across the different universities. The national program must include a target number of computer scientists within a certain time frame, categorized at undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels.

2) Establish an ecosystem by which an industry that is supported by computer science can thrive. In the first few years, this will mean linkages with multinational corporations. So be it, but only with the view towards our own local industry of advanced design. In the first few years, this might mean losing our computer scientists to other countries. So be it, so long as they understand that they must come back to the motherland.