Gov’t indifferent to plight of science research scholars
MANILA, Philippines — Research and development (R&D) is crucial to a nation’s progress, but the government appears indifferent to the state of the field, or to the plight of its research scholars.
The Philippines spends only 0.1 percent of its annual gross domestic product on R&D, according to 2013-2015 data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), as against its recommendation of 1 percent.
Last October, the research budget of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) was cut by P76 million, affecting over 888 projects, including cancer research. It is said that only 10 percent of research projects in 2021 would be funded.
But research scholars like Mea Sucgang, who is studying for a master’s degree in marine science at the University of the Philippines (UP), have long felt the crunch. Sucgang applied for a scholarship under the Accelerated Science and Technology Human Resource Development Program (ASTHRDP) of the DOST’s Science Education Institute (SEI). But constant delays in the release of her stipend have put her in dire straits, with the COVID-19 pandemic also impacting her family’s income.
To think that when the pandemic hit and the world geared for a lockdown, local scientists were quick to heed the call of a nation caught flat-footed.
Dr. Raul Destura and his team at the UP National Institute of Health developed GenAmplify, a low-cost diagnostic kit for COVID-19. The project, funded by the DOST, was started as early as January, when China first released the new coronavirus’ genome sequence to the global scientific community.
UP also kicked off other projects that would produce personal protective equipment for front-liners, as well as engineering solutions that would aid the implementation of health and safety measures.
The pandemic highlighted the need for scientific research, said Dr. Giovanni Tapang, dean of the UP College of Science (UPCS).
“Our scholars are willing to do research even in a pandemic, even in a Third World country,” said Tapang, who also chairs the national organization Agham (or Advocates of Science and Technology for the People).
186 per million
Unesco recommends a benchmark of 380 researchers, scientists and engineers (RSEs) per million population. With only 186 RSEs per million, the Philippine government wants to draw more students into research and development through such initiatives as the ASTHRDP.
The program aims to “help improve the country’s global competitiveness and capability to innovate through science and technology and accelerate the production of high-level human resources needed for research and development.”
Yet amid a health crisis where scientific solutions are key, disregard for the importance of research is common among government officials.
Recently, President Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque told the Octa Research team, an independent body composed mainly of UP faculty and alumni, to desist from making public its findings and quarantine recommendations.
Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda famously called UP marine scientists “bayaran” (paid hacks)—for which he has since apologized—for their comments on the “beach nourishment” project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Manila Bay.
A year ago in the middle of a budget hearing, Sen. Cynthia Villar chided the Department of Agriculture for being “obsessed” with research and asked why most of its proposed appropriation was for research.
Tapang told the Inquirer: “Even without a pandemic, it’s hard to work [as a scientist] here in the Philippines.”
Still, Sucgang wants to become a researcher-professor specializing in marine biology. “I hope to do research that can aid in conservation efforts and in the improvement of our food security, which is highly threatened due to climate change,” she said.
Around 60 percent of UPCS graduate students are scholars of the ASTHRDP, which provides their tuition, a monthly living stipend of P25,000-P33,000, and benefits such as book allowance and research incentives.
Delayed release of the stipend is a long-standing problem, said Jamika Roque, a Ph.D. student and ASTHRDP scholar.
This problem cropped up in social media as early as 2016, training a light on the plight of aspiring scientists who have had to grapple with basic necessities like food and rent money.
“Many scholars are forced to borrow money,” Jamika said. “[Debt] has always been the norm for scholars because of the late stipend. But because of the pandemic, taking out loans has also become more difficult.”
Technicalities such as the shortened academic year, which would reduce the amount received by scholars, as well as unclear contractual provisions, are complicating the problem.
Much of the issues related to the delayed stipend stem from the lack of personnel, Tapang said. The DOST-SEI may be swamped by paperwork, but there are administrative solutions like hiring more people and releasing the budget ahead of time, he said, adding:
“The semester is about to end and we are still not able to give the new scholars their stipend. They told us that the check was already prepared, but still…”
When Jamika brought up these concerns in a virtual graduate scholar conference on Nov. 27, DOST-SEI Director Josette Biyo said the department wanted to grant their requests but was limited by the Commission on Audit’s regulations.
Jamika, who also raised another issue about a discrepancy in stipends given to Ph.D. students, was cut off by Biyo who said: “If you don’t want our program, you can always do away with the program, you can shift to another program.”
Speaking with the Inquirer, Jamika said the dialogue with the DOST-SEI “exposed what [it] apparently thinks of us as scholars: disposable.”
She said Biyo’s response was “not fitting for her position as a government official whose mandate is to produce more [Filipino] scientists.”
The ASTHRDP is one of the projects expected to catalyze the development of local scientists and unlock the potential of the science and technology (S&T) workforce.
The DOST-SEI’s success depends largely on its students.
“But if we don’t [meet] their needs, they would be distracted and won’t get to do their experiments … and everything would get delayed. Everything would actually not be accelerated, contrary to [the program’s] name,” Tapang said.
He added: “We have very intelligent and promising young scholars, and we have mentors ready to help them. Remarks like what we heard [at the Nov. 27 conference] aren’t helping convince graduates to go into science careers … We have to be supportive of the students and their mentors every step of the way.”
A petition by Filipino S&T faculty members calling for the reevaluation of the ASTHRDP’s policies and operations has gathered 918 signatures at this writing.
The petition reads in part: “This forced poverty strips our students of their dignity and pride in being scholars and scientists.”
Foreign grants provide year-round support for their scholars, the petitioners pointed out. “In reality, graduate studies and researches usually occur beyond the typical academic semesters,” they said.
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