Myths in RP science

by Raul Kamantigue Suarez

Much has already been written concerning the low productivity of the Philippine scientific community. A quantitative measure of this, for example, the number of papers published in journals indexed by the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI), reveals that the Philippines has already been overtaken by Indonesia and Vietnam. Of course, there are efforts to improve the state of Philippine science: the government has increased the level of funding for research; more scholarships are available from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) for graduate studies; and a science complex is under construction at UP Diliman. The DOST’s Balik-Scientist program, which supports visits of expatriate Filipino scientists and engineers to allow them to help in “capacity-building,” has been rejuvenated and its funding increased. All these involve providing more money, but are the impediments to scientific progress well understood?

Sponsored by the DOST, I visited the Philippines last July to give a series of lectures at three UP campuses, the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center Aquaculture Department (SEAFDEC/AQD), and the Ateneo de Manila. Although I gave mostly scientific seminars, my last lecture at UP Diliman was about the Filipino scientific community’s role in contributing to the “intangible capital” that, according to Kirk Hamilton (Where Is The Wealth Of Nations?: Measuring Capital for the 21st Century, World Bank, 2006, http://go.worldbank.org/2QTH26ULQ0), makes up three-fourths of the wealth in the Philippines. I spoke of five widely held beliefs and proposed that their widespread acceptance retards scientific progress. Each should be regarded as a testable hypothesis, to be accepted or rejected, based on evidence. Below, I list these beliefs and question their validity.

Myth 1. Basic research does not yield useful outcomes. This is often heard as either a sweeping generalization or as a comment concerning a specific study. As a generalization, it is easily disproved — consider the long history of science and where many cures for disease, improvements in agriculture, and technological advances come from. Here is a specific example: imagine an application for funds concerning a project to characterize the venoms used by Philippine marine snails to immobilize their prey. There are many species of such snails and they hunt different prey species, so it is proposed that the venoms should vary in structure and mechanism of action. There are those who would consider this to be irrelevant, esoteric research that is unworthy of support. But, in fact, this is the highly acclaimed research done by Baldomero Olivera, Lourdes Cruz and colleagues. In addition to yielding wonderful biological insights and outstanding articles published in some of the world’s best scientific journals, this research has led to the discovery of new molecules that can alleviate pain in human patients. This is just one of many examples of where curiosity-driven, basic research can lead.

Myth 2. Applied research does not yield high-quality, peer-reviewed, international publications. This is often used as an excuse by those who write terminal reports for their funding agencies and do not publish at all, or by those who submit their work to local journals that often do not subject manuscripts to expert, peer review. But why are there hundreds of international, peer-reviewed journals that publish the results of applied research, and why can one can read so many scientific papers originating from IRRI and SEAFDEC/AQD? In reality, doing research, basic or applied, includes publication in peer-reviewed journals as part of the process. “Publishability” in such journals serves as a measure of the quality of the work, makes the results available to the international community, and makes possible replication of the study and verification of the results. Many “completed” projects never see the light of day as international journal publications because it is said that the work is “applied,” rather than “basic.” Another possible explanation is that the work is simply not good enough to be published in a reputable journal, raising the question of whether such work is worthy of funding to begin with.

Myth 3. World-class research requires expensive, sophisticated equipment. This belief is contrary to what I knew even as a young biology student in the 1970s. Even today, there are many papers published in top international journals based on work done using binoculars and personal computers. Much world-class science is still done by measuring trees or by identifying and counting fish caught in nets. In many areas of research, what matters more than the use of fancy equipment is whether the questions are good and the methods are appropriate.

Myth 4. Lack of expensive, sophisticated equipment prevents publishable research from being done. At the Natural Science Research Institute at UP Diliman, SEAFDEC/AQD and the Ateneo de Manila, one can find expensive, sophisticated equipment for research in chemistry, molecular and cell biology, including DNA sequencers and electron microscopes. Of course, not all institutions have such equipment. But when I hear a scientist from an especially well-equipped institution ask, “How can we do research when we don’t have equipment?” I am left wondering whether lack of equipment is really the problem.

Myth 5. There is not enough money for scientific research in the Philippines. The Philippine government has funded research for decades. In his article concerning the UP Centennial in http://www.bahaykuboresearch.net/index.php?module=article&view=52, Lacanilao states that the DOST’s “1991 budget doubled to P1.7 billion in 1992, went up to P2.4 billion in 1993, and to P3.2 billion in 1995.” This almost four-fold increase in the science budget in four years was accompanied by an increase in the number of papers published in ISI-indexed journals from about 250 to 300 per year (data courtesy of Katherine Develos-Bagarinao). Therefore, a 20 percent increase in scientific productivity resulted from an almost 400 percent increase in the science budget. A possible argument against this imperfect analysis is that much of science spending goes into manpower training and the development of infrastructure, so the effect on productivity may occur much later. However, at the DOST in early July, an official complained that although the budget for science had been increased even more, the capacity of the scientific community to “absorb” the increase was too limited and the DOST was having trouble giving money away. This is not what one would expect to hear in a country that does not have enough money for science.

The scientific enterprise is subject to the influences of social, economic and political factors. The true nature of the impediments to scientific productivity must be understood; such understanding should serve as the basis for effective solutions to real problems. It is better to be late than to never discard myths.

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Raul Kamantigue Suarez is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California and an editor of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. E-mail at suarez@lifesci.ucsb.edu.

 

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