Adapting to Climate Change through Research & Education

by Flor Lacanilao
Retired Professor of Marine Science
University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon City
florlaca @

The devastation expected from climate change within this century is on top of every country’s agenda. In the Philippines, it will dwarf the combined fury of the recent typhoons that caught the country unprepared. Some climate scientists believe that with the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, global warming will continue even if carbon emission is cut to currently-proposed levels.

Among verified results of global warming are extreme weather events and record temperature rise, receding glaciers, and rising sea levels — together known as climate change (1). This will impact on biodiversity, agriculture, fisheries, diseases, human settlements, and cause more public misery in poor countries. High population density (limited land area), archipelagic condition (many coastal communities), and widespread poverty make the Philippines even more vulnerable.

Climate change & poverty are “The two defining challenges of this century.” The world is concerned with two things: mitigation and adaptive measures. Both require political will and technological know-how. The poor condition of these two is the main cause of poverty in the country. There is hardly anything the Philippines can do to prevent climate change. But we can increase our chances of survival by reducing poverty through improvements in research and education.

RP’s poor adaptive potential

The ability of the Philippines to adapt to the impacts of climate change can be shown by its S&T performance and state of economic progress. The established measure of S&T performance is the number of papers published in peer-reviewed international journals — scientific or valid publications. Only such publications are used in international rating of S&T or academic performance when ranking nations or universities. The state of national progress can be measured by the UNDP’s Human Development Index or HDI based on economic and social indicators.

For example, Katherine Bagarinao has shown, with data from Science Citation Index Expanded, that Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia (since mid 1990s), and Vietnam (since 2004) have passed the Philippines in number of valid publications per year (Google or Yahoo search, “Doing research for development”). Smaller Taiwan had 30 times and tiny Singapore had 10 times more such publications than the Philippines in 2006.

In assessing national progress, I used data from the UNDP’s Human Development Index Trends for 1980-2008, and plotted the HDI trends of the countries above to visualize their growth trends. The publication performance of the countries above matches or corresponds with their performance in development as measured by HDI. The Philippines, with its lowest scientific productivity and growth rate, had also the lowest national development and growth rate.

UNDP’s Human Development Reports show the nations’ relative development or ranking. In the last 10 years, the Philippines’ rank has gone down from no. 77 in 1997-98, to an average 84 in 2000-04, 90 in 2005, 102 in 2006, and 105 in 2007. Further, Mahar Mangahas of Social Weather Station says (Inquirer, 7 Nov 2009), RP’s poverty level has not improved in the last 26 years (despite a roller-coater trend) between 55% in 1983 to 53% in 2009, which “are statistically the same.”

The Philippines performance in education has also been poor. A UNESCO report, for example, has shown that the Philippines ranked 76th in the 2006 ranking based on the Education Development Index, below Vietnam (67th) and Indonesia (60th). And in university rankings using objective academic indicators — like research performance in terms of number of valid publications and publication citations — no Philippine university since a 2003 ranking has yet made the first 100 in the Asia Pacific or the world’s top 500 (2).

The above review of the Philippines poor performance in S&T, national progress, and education shows that we are hardly prepared for climate change adaptation. It shows a sad picture of the magnitude of groundwork we have to do, but it can also be a useful guide to direct the various actions needed for our goal.

Improving research and education

Our best bet to survive the impacts of climate change is to reduce poverty. This is best done by changing our ways of doing research to advance S&T and to improve education. It means, a “transition from a crisis/symptom mode to a prevention/cure mode” of problem solving. Our Asian neighbors, following developed countries, have adopted these approaches earlier; and some African countries have been pursuing the same way out of poverty (3). These are indications that some African countries are headed to follow Indonesia and Vietnam in leaving the Philippines behind.

Improving research performance

The established process of research has undergone over 3 centuries of development, since the publication of the first two scientific journals in London and Paris in 1665. It requires publication in a research journal that is adequately peer-reviewed and accessible for international verification of results. The review and verification processes help guarantee and safeguard the integrity of the published paper.

Many studies in the Philippines end as a project report or graduate thesis. These are the widely accepted points of completion of research or graduate training in the country. If published, in most cases the outcome is gray literature — published papers without adequate peer review. Examples are papers in newsletters, institutional reports, most conference proceedings, and nearly all local journals. They have doubtful validity, are not taken seriously, and don’t count in international ranking of nations, universities, and evaluation of researchers. Such practices that waste time, energy, and money should stop.

Personal judgment or peer review by those without valid publications is prevalent; and it is the main cause of the poor state of research and education. The use of reputable or prestigious journal without a useful definition of “reputable” or “prestigious” is just as bad. These evaluation practices should stop. Instead, only those with valid publications are really qualified for research grants; and only valid publications are given merit points for promotion, recognition, or awards. There is no sense in going through an elaborate evaluation process with a guideline that doesn’t guaranty the desired result for reform or excellence. The simplest and most reliable way is to make valid publication the criterion — for the evaluator to do the job, for the proponent to get research grant, for the researcher to get a promotion or recognition, for the grad student to get a doctoral degree, etc.

In a developing country, an effective way of improving research performance is to give incentives for valid publications. This has been shown in some Latin American countries, by giving increased salaries or research scholarship abroad (4). At the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) in Iloilo and at the University of Philippines, the requirement of valid publication for cash incentive — 50% of annual salary and P55,000, respectively — has increased the number of publications more than two-fold.

Reforming education

Educational reform can be done in two ways. First, by recognizing the observation of Nobel laureate in physics, Carl Wieman, that it is doubtful great progress can be made at the primary and secondary levels until a higher standard of learning is set at the tertiary level. The second way is by developing some leading universities in the country into research universities.

New teaching methods have already been ongoing in the US for an innovative teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the university level (5). In this reform of STEM teaching, “a majority of the faculty in a given university department must become collectively engaged in implementing new curricula and teaching methods. In other words, an entire department must be the unit of change.” This has shown improved learning and can ultimately replace the traditional lecture model.

In the EU, the inquiry-based science education at the primary and secondary levels is gaining popular support (6). The method encourages students of 5-16 years old to “develop a sense of wonder, observation, and logical reasoning.” The program includes interactions with scientists and periodic assessment of progress. As a result, teachers gain confidence and a better understanding of science as a process, rather than as a collection of facts.

The e-textbook is revolutionizing the online teaching and learning throughout the world at all levels of education (7). The textbook boundaries have been stretching for some time now. Many books already come with a CD, or they include links to a website where updates can be found. “The printed textbook will not vanish anytime soon — but a generation from now; it could be just a memory.”

Developing some research universities will be needed to accelerate changes in research and teaching practices. It will also be important in training the faculty of other universities, which in turn will provide better prepared teachers at the secondary and primary levels.

The concept of research and teaching under one roof was envisioned by the Philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who in 1810 founded the University of Berlin (8). The university quickly became a renowned institution, which attracted many internationally influential thinkers and scientists. The relationship between research productivity and teaching effectiveness has led to the development of research universities. And studies from this development have shown that (a) the two are positively correlated — teaching effectiveness benefits from research productivity, (b) research and teaching as complementary activities is central to the idea of the modern university, and (c) these two activities are so mutually reinforcing that they must coexist in the same institutions.

The University of the Philippines has recently been mandated as the National University. This is timely in view of the significant improvement in its research performance in recent years (Google search, “Celebrating the UP Centennial”). And to truly function as such, it has to develop into a research university, the first to become one in the country. This would require some changes in faculty recruitment, in performance evaluation, and in academic programs. The principal criterion of faculty recruitment and promotion is research. Valid publication is the main basis of rating qualification and performance rather than possession of an advanced degree by the applicant or the personal judgment of unpublished members of search committees. Emphasis of the university is graduate education, where at least one valid publication is the requirement for a doctoral degree.

Final conditions for successful adaptation

The frightening impacts of climate change, particularly on agriculture, spread of diseases, and biodiversity are likely to be the most crucial for us. Fortunately, many studies on them are available; climate-related ones are being intensified in many countries. Our scientists can make follow-up studies and research on how technologies can be adapted to minimize the harmful climate effects. Graduate students will have many thesis topics relevant to climate change. This is also true for social scientists. It is important for all studies to be published properly, as valid publication; that is, in peer-reviewed international journals to insure verification of published results. Educators at all levels will have to implement the needed curricular changes and innovative teaching methods.

We should not just wait for a new technology from another country. We have to develop the ability to adapt and implement it. And we can only do these with changed research practice and improved S&T performance. Developed countries have been advised: “You don’t just go and helicopter-drop a new technology into a country. You need that country to have developed the ability to have identified the technology they need, to adopt it, and to implement it.” This explains why we have not been able to move forward even after decades of implementing foreign technologies.

We must maximize our technical know-how, continue our development, and use our limited resources in preparing and implementing climate-adaptation programs. These include stopping the ill-advised actions related to carbon emission, like the biofuel programs (which, some studies have shown, do more harm than good); and attending international meetings to campaign for a fair deal on carbon emission (rich countries don’t listen to us anyway). Our best bet to survive climate change is to use a combination of all available energy sources while focusing on our development to reduce poverty (9). It is ironic for poor countries that have contributed the least to climate change to suffer the most from its impacts. But let us do our part and replant our forests because they absorb carbon dioxide we produce in the course of our economic development.


1. (a) The IPCC Climate change 2007: Synthesis Report; (b) The IPCC Assessment Reports; (c) Closing the Gaps: Disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change in developing countries. Report of the Commission on Climate Change and Development, 2009.

2. Academic Ranking of World Universities 2003-2008. Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

3. (a) Editorial. 2007. Africa’s academies: Robust scientific institutions won’t be built in a day. Nature 450: 762; (b) Muchie M. 2008. Africa needs research universities to fight poverty. SciDev.Net, 1 August 2008.

4. Wayt Gibbs W. l995. Lost science in the Third World. Scientific American (August): 76-83.

5. Wieman C. 2009. Galvanizing science departments. Science 325: 1181.

6. Léna P. 2009. Europe rethinks education. Science 326: 501.

7. Editorial. 2009. Clicking on a new chapter. Nature 458: 549-550.

8. Arai K, Cech T, Chameau JL etc. 2007. The future of research universities. EMBO Reports 8: 804-810.

9. (a) Bierbaum R.M. and Zoellick R.B. 2009. Development and climate change. Science 326: 771; (b) Pachauri R.K. 2009. India pushes for common responsibility. Nature 461: 1054


Plenary Lecture, CHED National Conference on Research in Higher Education, Davao City, 12-13 November 2009.

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