Irrational policies of science bureaucracy
ON THE CONTRARY ANTONIO CONTRERAS
The Manila Times
FERDINAND Marcos Jr. came into the presidency with a host of intentions, one of which was to prioritize science. And he indeed made good on this intention, at least during his first year in office. One of his significant policy actions is the support he gave to agricultural modernization using science. He has given financial and institutional resources to one of the current initiatives led by the School of Environmental Science and Management (Sesam) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, which would use digital technology and satellite data to rationalize the agriculture sector. The Sarai project, which stands for “Smarter Approaches to Reinvigorate Agriculture as an Industry in the Philippines,” is an action-research program, funded by the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development (DoST-Pcaarrd), that hopes to reduce risks brought about by climate change by providing agricultural stakeholders with site-specific crop advisories. Specifically, it endeavors to provide crop advisories for rice, corn, banana, coconut, coffee, cacao, sugarcane, soybeans and tomatoes. These advisories integrate local weather data and drought forecasts with farm management activities, specifically nutrient and water management and proactive pest and disease monitoring. It is therefore disturbing, to say the least, that Congress has indicated slashing the 2024 budget of some science agencies by about P500 million. While some of the cuts may be due to underutilization in the previous budget cycle, particularly on capital expenses, these cuts plus the modest increases in other science agencies do not add up to the much-vaunted prioritization of science declared by the President. A perusal of the experience of successful economies reveals higher public investments in research and development (R&D), and it is a given that the level of funding Philippine science bureaucracies receive is below par compared to other countries. Researchers are therefore left with no recourse but to depend on externally sourced grants from foreign funding agencies or from private companies. Current practices by science agencies, including universities, actively promote public-private partnerships in R&D. This is further given impetus by the reward given to universities in academic rankings in the form of points given to corporate investments in universities, particularly in their research and development undertakings. However, while this is a viable option to compensate for the inadequacy of state funds, private investments in university R&D may come with some adverse collateral. Private funds usually come loaded with the priorities of the source agencies and could therefore constrain the autonomy of universities in setting their own R&D directions. In scientific fields where there is an established regulatory mechanism, such as those involving phytosanitary clearances, for example, the involvement of many scientists in research projects funded by private entities whose activities are subject to regulation may complicate matters. This is because the scientists involved may no longer be able to become resources that can be tapped by these regulatory bodies because they would now have conflicts of interest if their research were funded by the corporations that are subject to the regulation. One area that can experience this conundrum is the assessment of the impacts of chemicals and genetically modified organisms. Those who have competence in these areas may be ethically constrained from giving expert advice simply because they have a history of, or are currently involved in, conducting research that received support and funding from prominent agrochemical companies like Pfizer and Syngenta. Beyond the fund-related constraints, there are also a host of challenges that are rarely discussed but exist and have affected the work of research scientists. Limited funding aside, science bureaucracies should optimize their operations and ensure that the procedures and policies they adopt enable, instead of constraining, the work of scientists. And yet, there are several bureaucratic practices and policies under the agencies attached to the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) that appear to privilege bureaucratic rigidity over innovation and the enabling of the work of scientists, many of whom are more adept at working in their labs or in the field, instead of dealing with bureaucratic requirements. Admittedly, bureaucratic processes make the lives of regulators easier. Unfortunately, many of them tend to constrain the work of scientists. A specific example of this is the DoST policy that proposals that have already been uploaded online in their submission platform called DPMIS (DoST Project Management Information System) are given only 40 days reckoned from the date of uploading for them to be finalized and revised. Otherwise, they are automatically disapproved. This policy is simply irrational and unfair, considering that the proponents are now held hostage by delays caused by late transmittal of comments from reviewers, which are beyond the control of the proponents. A more rational policy would be to reckon the 40 days from the time the review comments are received by the proponents. One DoST policy that is even discriminatory is the prohibition imposed on non-permanent researchers to become project leaders, despite their stature and experience. This prevents well-known visiting foreign scientists, or Balik Scientists, from leading their projects. And if the latter are exempted from the application of the policy, then the discrimination is further amplified, considering that it gives preferential bias to non-Filipino citizens and residents but penalizes local and homegrown scientists. Perhaps most egregious is the DoST policy that bars researchers who are about to retire within one year from leading research projects. While the concern here, and also in barring researchers without permanent appointments, is accountability when appointments are not renewed or when researchers retire, there are other mechanisms that can be imposed without discriminating against non-tenured and elderly researchers. In fact, the practice of barring research scientists nearing their retirement from leading projects even runs afoul of the provisions of the Anti-Age Discrimination Law or RA 10911. Section 5(4) of the law states that it shall be unlawful to discriminate against an individual in terms of privileges of employment on account of such individual’s age. Leading a research project is a privilege.