How sustainable is research and science in the Philippines?

Where our country stands in the global context

The Covid-19 pandemic recently highlighted how important scientific expertise and research is to the success of a country. The Philippines was fortunate to have many health experts and scientists willing to advise and guide the government in its darkest hour. Building on the efforts of past administrations, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has been increasing its budget for grants and scholarships for Filipino scientists and these same scientists the country trained have shown their worth. As someone who was a direct beneficiary of government science programs since high school, I can attest to how such investments bear much valuable fruit.

There are many talented Filipino scientists who have shown their mettle and continue to produce high-impact research internationally. The establishment of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) system to which I owe my secondary education was meant to identify children with an aptitude for science and provide the tools for them to be successful. After graduating from PSHS, I went to the University of the Philippines where I was an Oblation Scholar and proceeded to train in medicine also at the University of the Philippines. I left the country for further studies in the US for six years and I came home as a long-term Balik Scientist and joined the National Institutes of Health as research faculty. The Balik Scientist program helped me establish myself and provided financial assistance and grants for research. It has since become a law and is now providing support for both short-term exchanges and long-term balikbayan scientists.

Since I returned in 2008, I have realized how the DOST programs have made it easier for scientists like me to return home and work on research problems of particular relevance to our country. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself along with many other government-trained scientists giving advice and guidance to the Philippine government, which resulted in a successful pandemic response. It was serendipitous that I had the exact skill sets needed during the pandemic, which included expertise in infectious diseases, molecular epidemiology, and disease outbreaks.

SCIENCE CONFERENCE Former DOST Secretary Fortunato de la Peña explains the Balik Scientist Act provisions in 2018

One major issue that is a recurring problem is compensation that is at par with developed countries. I am lucky since I am also a physician with a private practice to supplement my income. Most local scientists, however, are paid a fraction of what they would make abroad. To entice scientists to return home or to stay put, it is important that they are paid what they are worth. Lawmakers from all political parties have recognized this need and important laws like the Balik Scientist Law and amendments to the Magna Carta for Scientists expanding benefits to scientists and removing artificial caps on compensation have all enjoyed support across the political spectrum.

Most local scientists, however, are paid a fraction of what they would make abroad. To entice scientists to return home or to stay put, it is important that they are paid what they are worth.

Even with improved compensation, there are still many reasons Filipino scientists choose to leave. The lack of proper equipment and laboratory facilities is frequently cited by our scientists as another reason for giving up. The DOST has increased its budget since I got back, and the grants I have received have enabled me to equip a world-class laboratory at the NIH that was immensely useful during the pandemic for RT-PCR testing and genomic sequencing. The Philippine Genome Center itself was a huge investment by DOST, and it paid off quite well with our Covid-19 genomic surveillance that continues to protect us to this day. Aside from further increasing grant funding, the government should work on streamlining processes for procurement and financial management, which are a constant source of frustration for local researchers.

At the end of the day, what makes science sustainable in the country are the scientists themselves. Reaching a critical mass that makes the country competitive globally has been a blueprint for successful nations like Singapore. Competitive renumeration and world-class facilities with minimal bureaucratic red tape will go a long way to reaching this goal. A happy scientist is a productive scientist. Productive scientists will make our nation prosperous and resilient. It is always best to follow the science.

Note: The author is director and professor at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. He has been a government scholar since high school and returned home as a Balik Scientist in 2008. He is a member of the Department of Health Technical Advisory Group which was instrumental in formulating health policy during the pandemic and directly adviced the IATF and President Duterte during the Covid-19 pandemic.