Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A few billions and the future of Philippine science

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will go down in history as the only Malacanang tenant to seriously consider the importance of investing in big scale science infrastructure. While previous presidents have paid lip service to the importance of science, their words did not match the budget appropriations, until Gloria came around.

Gloria has issued an executive order creating a national science complex at University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman. While the idea of a science complex/campus had been floated as early as the 1970s it became a distinct possibility in 1983, when the UP's science college was established, But it was only during the latter half of the Aquino and Ramos presidency when buildings were constructed. However the complex was left unfinished as budget allocations were small. During the Erap presidency science took a backseat. In the Arroyo presidency, the complex was allocated 3 B PhP.

The money has been spent in completing the physics and math buildings, erect the chemistry, biology, molecular biology, environmental science and science administration buildings. The money also allowed for the completion of the road network to service these buildings. These buildings form the important core of basic science disciplines that hopefully can let the country play catch up with Asian countries with respect to science. The only thing missing in this complex is a medical sciences institute. Medicine if it ever can contribute to and benefit from Philippine science should be integrated with the NSC as the case in top universities overseas. Unfortunately the organizational structure of UP leaves the medical sciences in UP Manila.

However, once more former UP Visayas chancellor and Professor of Marine Sciences Flor Lacanilao sheds light on another problem that has hardly little to do with science infrastructure but more on science manpower. But before we go into the negatives, let us dwell on the positives first. UP and the top universities in the country has largely realized that real academic reform lies with promoting research and publication. The benefits of these will filter down to state of the art teaching thereby improving the main function of a university. But as Lacanilao writes, there are counter-productive processes in universities that may make the multi-billion peso investment in science infrastructure redundant. This I believe is largely cultural. For instance, the doctoral degree is still seen as the culmination of a research career whilst in reality, this is the basic qualification. Research performance is best measured in the number of papers published and citation indexes. But in many Philippine universities these measures are not often used.

Another problem that hampers science development in the Philippines is the lack of good research mentors. This has been often raised by UP science dean Prof. Caesar Saloma. The only cure for this problem is to promote and give incentive to research and research faculty members as based on merit and not on seniority.

However a science or in more general terms academic, meritocracy will require a paradigm shift Philippine universities. In the Philippines we hear of people WANTING to be chair, but in overseas universities, people AVOID the Chairmanship like the plague. Administrative duties take time from research and research is the way that promotions are measured. But unfortunately someone has to be the chair!

I hate the misuse of the term 'ecology" in deciding faculty appointments. The appointments in this system are designed not to disturb the "ecology" of positions in a department. In this culture, seniority is the main criterion in promotions and tenure. In a meritocracy, there are measurable indices for assessing academic performance.

Lacanilao suggests that UP focuses more on graduate training rather than undergraduate training. But this is not good politic and won't be bought by Congress (or the Parliament after 2010!). What UP can do is to develop certain campuses as graduate campuses (presumbably the NSC will become this) while other campuses can be developed as centers of undergraduate training. But it has to be considered that excellent graduate training is synergistic with excellent undergraduate training. It is obvious that good talent comes from the undergraduate sector. The promising talents need to be identified at the undergrad level and be encouraged to go into graduate school.

The idea that UP focuses on graduate teaching and research and let other universities focus on undergraduate teaching isn't new. In 1947, Professor Merill of Michigan gave a speech to convocation at UP precisely suggesting this path.

The Philippines still lacks scientists. While we have more PhDs now than 30 years ago, we still have not developed critical mass in many of the disciplines. This hinders development of more scientists. Most of the PhDs are lone experts.


Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

A very welcome development on the UP campus in Diliman, yes. However, the idea has been there since at least Emil Javier's presidency and is not original to Gloria.

But what is original to her is the ABOLITION of the Science Subject in Grades One and Two of the Deped Curriculum. INdeed since 2002, when PGMA promulgated the current Revised Basic Education Curriculum the Science Subject no longer exists in those two crucial grade levels.

I submit that the central problem of Philippine education is the Elementary School Level, where the Public schools represent 90% of enrollments, and in the High Schools where public is fully 65-70% (by some estimates). Nor is the problem really at tertiary, where private schools dominate anyway and are doing a pretty good job: viz OFWs.

We shall have to look in great detail now at the entire educational system. Thanks for opening up this all impt topic that will be a focus of the SONA!

Jesusa Bernardo said...

I support Dean Bocobo's criticism of Gloria's abolition of the science subject in the lower elementary curriculum. When my kids went through Grades 1 & 2 during the initial implementation of the Bogus President's orders to focus on English, I should say I was shocked how an important subject went missing.

As to the more science-inclined Presidents, top of my head I say Marcos exerted some efforts. His big sins aside, we should thank Marcos for the Philippine Science High School system, which has produced some of the better-to-best minds (among UP science students, at least).

As for Gloria and UP, ask the many families how much they pay now for the tuition of their children who gets classified by STFAP as bracket "C" instead of "D" or "E".

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

Please click on the
education label for over twenty articles that lead to all the official DEPED documentation and website files for hard facts (subpoena duces tecum!) relevant and material to this all important topic--and my accusations!