Does the Philippines value scientific research?

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Scientists speak up about the true costs of and barriers to scientific research in the Philippines. Photo by JILSON TIU

Editor's note: Jason Tan Liwag is an early-career scientist taking his MS in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is also an actor and a writer.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Both the government and scientists can agree: the Philippines can still harness scientific research better when it comes to solving problems of national interest.

To address this gap, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in partnership with other government institutions, the private sector, and the academe created the Harmonized National R&D Agenda (HNRDA) 2017-2022 with the goal of integrating research and development or R&D efforts “towards the shared goal of inclusive socio-economic growth and a better life for Filipinos.”

The agenda identified five key sectors: 1) basic research, 2) agriculture, aquatic and natural resources, 3) health, 4) energy and emerging technologies, 5) and disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

But the systems in place may not allow for a speedy advancement of these shared goals.

If you ask anyone in the local scientific community what one of the major barriers to research is, they will answer the same thing: procurement. The government procurement process, otherwise known as RA 9184 , was created with the goal of creating a “transparent,” “streamlined” procurement process with a “system of accountability” to prevent rampant corruption. However, in creating a one-size-fits-all process, the country has created the largest barrier to diversifying its research landscape. From my personal experience as a scientist, an experiment that would take other countries a day to do would take scientists in the Philippines three months and for 3-20 times the cost elsewhere. Procurement laws do not only make science slower or nearly impossible as they discourage manufacturers and service providers from establishing a presence locally, but they also don't have safeguards to protect scientists from suppliers who markup beyond reasonable prices.

This has only worsened during the pandemic. "Procurement has really been gravely delayed," says Pia Bagamasbad, an associate professor and principal investigator at the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at U.P. Diliman. She narrates the difficulties with getting signatures, submitting reports, and backlogs in disbursement caused by the skeletal workforces. The result is a vicious cycle of unclear communication with suppliers, failed bids, and uncertain research outcomes. These subsequently affect funding and scientists’ track records with government agencies. "The university is starting to put things in place so that we can still do research."

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, funding has always been a major barrier to research. In 2015, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics stated that there are only 198 researchers per million inhabitants in the Philippines and only 0.2% of the country’s gross domestic expenditure is spent on research and development, with both values being significantly lower than the global average.

It seems that to be a scientist in the Philippines, you must take a vow of poverty and enter a system rigged against you.

Government agencies such as the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) often act as grant-giving bodies to scientists on the basis of both merit and its adherence to national research agendas. Despite the existence of a National Integrated Basic Research Agenda (NIBRA), there has been a preference for output-based research in the hopes of monetizing a patent, a drug, or a new technology. On the other hand there is still a long way to go when it comes to harmonizing scientific views behind different agencies’ projects or responses to public crises, a misalignment which often leads to an unrealistic understanding of the costs involved in research.

First is time: For example, drug development is a lengthy process that usually takes 10-15 years to ensure efficacy and safety for the general population (see here). "That’s in a resource-rich country like the U.S.," says Bagamasbad. "And yet government agencies here, they want something that can be sold or marketed or marketable or patented within two years. And if you're doing research in the life sciences, that is nearly close to impossible. For drug discovery, even first world countries, it takes about 15 years: from designing the drug screening assays to having the drug approved so it could be marketed, up to the end of clinical trials."

Research builds on other research. The only reason why the COVID test kit was developed in relatively quick response by the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health, the Philippine Genome Center, and The Manila HealthTek Inc. in March, was because the team’s lead Raul V. Destura already did previous research on the behavior of RNA viruses nine years ago when his team started working on a test kit for dengue. (Of note: this was through a grant of DOST’s Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, Philippine Genome Center and Technology Application and Promotion Institute.) This is true for other outputs as well such as crop strains, or even renewable energy technologies.

A second major source of expenses: the funds needed to acquire, or pay to use laboratories, research equipment and facilities, as well as transportation and lodging requirements for field work, and fees for researchers. Deo Onda, deputy director for research and principal investigator at the Marine Science Institute at U.P. Diliman said, "Most researchers are project-based or contractual. They don't have the regular privileges that are being received by regular U.P. employees." In MSI alone, 88% are project-based research assistants (RAs). They became the most vulnerable sector when research projects were paused. Onda saw firsthand the mental health- and family-related issues that demoralized his peers, and shares how some project leaders provided personal loans to help the RAs themselves.

His experience reflects a larger issue: Even if the funds are available and legislation states it as a priority, there is still a lack of institutional support for scientific communities. For example, the ₱364 million used for a decade’s worth of innovative basic and applied marine science research nearly equals the budget of a senseless beautification project that is problematic for visitors’ health and the environment. It seems that to be a scientist in the Philippines, you must take a vow of poverty and enter a system rigged against you.

The effect on society is a loss of other important, but less “urgent” research, such as basic research — or studies that are not geared towards a specific application in the market, but rather to deepen understanding. Some examples include development of local biobanks, new weather forecasting models, and mass testing efforts. Research used to inform policy making decisions. If these aren't funded, how do we go about making decisions for the greater good of the public? We often hear stories about grand narratives in science. But by focusing on these, we forget the smaller efforts of scientists everywhere. We lose sight of the science of the everyday and the struggles that researchers must overcome, especially during these uncertain times.