Realities in RP science

by Raul Kamantigue Suarez, PhD

During my recent Balik Scientist visit to the Philippines, a very dear scientist friend said she had gotten tired of reading articles such as this because, after issues have been debated and so many words exchanged, nothing ever changes. But even Marx, who pointed out the need to change the world, analyzed it first. In my previous Star Science article entitled “Myths in Philippine Science,” I wrote about the apparent lack of clear understanding of what limits scientific productivity in the Philippines. Such understanding is necessary if problems are to be properly addressed. For example, if providing more funding for science is necessary, is this, by itself, sufficient? Or, given current conditions, should certain changes precede or accompany an increase in government funding for science? I think our dear friend would agree that such questions are worth asking, especially in a poor country where science competes for funding with education, health care, and other national programs that are starved of funds. The importance of rejuvenating science in the Philippines cannot be underestimated. Kirk Hamilton’s work (Where Is The Wealth Of Nations?: Measuring Capital for the 21st Century, World Bank, 2006, http://go.worldbank.org/2QTH26ULQ0) reveals that about three-fourths of each country’s wealth lies not in natural resources or industrial production, but in “intangible capital” (quality of social institutions, education, skills and know-how, stable rule of law, honest elections, etc.). The intangible capital available to each Filipino is worth about 10 times less than what is available to each Singaporean and 20 times less than what is available to each Japanese. Research, done by a healthy and productive scientific community, is an important component of the engines that drive the economies of all countries. So, let us consider the problems faced by those who do research and train scientists. Here are several problems identified by some accomplished Filipino scientists with whom I spoke:

The brain drain. Many scientists have left academia or left the country. Graduate students and young faculty members (at the UP) suffer from lack of mentors. Thus, although there is an abundance of raw talent among Filipinos, the national investment in manpower training is lost when scientists leave or give up doing science. In addition, the scarcity of highly published senior scientists, who can train students and serve as role models, creates new generations of scientists who are improperly trained in the culture and practice of science.

Low salaries. Researchers and scientist/professors who have trouble living on their salaries must find other ways to make ends meet and cannot do research with the commitment, passion and intensity required to be productive and to achieve excellence. This situation, along with other factors, contributes to the brain drain.

Too much teaching. University students refer to their professors as “teachers” and university administrators view teaching as the primary responsibility of their faculty. Research is considered an optional activity, done “on the side.” These are symptoms of the widespread failure to recognize that universities must contribute to the advancement of knowledge to be considered as true universities. Professors who write poetry teach poetry; those who teach science must do science.

Excessive red tape. A UP Los Baños faculty member says that her research assistants spend 30 percent of their time dealing with red tape, rather than performing research. Instead of administering research grants to facilitate and streamline research activity using modern financial management procedures, the goal seems to be mainly to catch cheaters and to follow outmoded procedures in a system wherein researchers are expected to serve the needs of accountants, and not the reverse.

Misguided priorities and policies of granting agencies. I am told that major government funding agencies refuse to fund applications that do not spell out practical applications. This is contrary to the history of science, which shows that practical applications come from basic, curiosity-driven research. In contrast, much research does get funded because it is said to be “applied.” The more important question should be whether the quality of the proposed work is high and whether the applicant is capable of carrying it out. For decades, researchers have submitted progress and terminal reports to funding agencies without publishing peer-reviewed papers in international journals. Then, in the absence of these indicators of the quality and quantity of the work previously done, investigators are able to secure more funding. In many scientifically productive countries, highly published scientists are the ones who become institutional directors and heads of granting agencies. This is based on the idea that only real scientists understand the needs of scientists, know from experience what it takes to do good science, and know how to evaluate quality.

It seems clear that the minimal requirements for progress include (1) raising the salaries of professors/scientists involved in research, (2) reducing (but not eliminating) the teaching loads of active researchers, (3) modernizing financial management procedures in the administration of grants, and (4) overhauling funding priorities and policies. Such changes will help create conditions conducive to scientific productivity and, in the long run, help control the brain drain. But the low productivity of Filipino scientists is the consequence of multiple, interacting problems. This means that, as a solution, money is necessary, but not sufficient. From recent personal experience, I know that one of the consequences of the above problems is the emergence of a culture in which seminars completely lacking in scientific content are better-attended and better-appreciated by audiences than those presenting hypotheses, data, and complex findings (where real science is discussed). Even the well-intentioned, well-funded Balik Scientist program will be for naught if the intended beneficiaries are unwilling to learn, if they shy away from doing hypothesis-driven science, and if they continue to question the value of publication in peer-reviewed, international journals. Cultures can change as the old die and are replaced by succeeding generations. Progress is made as new generations do better than the previous ones. Given the availability of more funds from the DOST for graduate studies and postdoctoral training abroad, young Filipinos are in a position to seize these opportunities, to learn to do proper science and to transform the country’s scientific culture. They need to come back to a system made conducive (by their elders) to lives in science.

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

 

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