Major investment in higher education and R&D is key to fulfilling the Aquino Social Contract with the Filipino people
Major investment in higher education and R&D is key to fulfilling the Aquino Social Contract with the Filipino people
STAR SCIENCE - Gisela P. Padilla-Concepcion, Ph.D. (The Philippine Star) - January 9, 2014 - 12:00am

Five Key Result Areas (KRAs) have been identified in the social contract of President Aquino with the Filipino people. These are: 1) transparent, accountable, and participatory governance; 2) poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor and vulnerable; 3) rapid, inclusive, and sustained economic growth; 4) just and lasting peace and the rule of law; and 5) integrity of the environment and climate change adaptation and mitigation. The KRAs come with the tagline “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” Government spending and allocation of resources are focused on programs around the KRAs and the tagline (

However, what is truly critical in advancing the socio-economic status of any nation and fulfilling such a social contract is a major investment in higher education and R&D (research and development) — in order to produce the great number of highly skilled, expert, innovative, ethical individuals required to lead and implement the programs around the KRAs. Higher education and R&D provide the knowledge-based foundation for the long-term fulfilment of the Aquino Social Contract (see Figure 1).

For any program, no amount of great ideas and concepts, plans and blueprints, laws and policies, or investments in physical infrastructure, technology, other capital outlay, and operating expenses, can result in significant, sustained progress if there are not enough competent individuals with deep knowledge and commitment, and specialized skills, who can move the program forward, and provide innovative, effective, long-lasting solutions to problems encountered along the way. Expert human resources are the single most important, self-propelling engines of socio-economic progress.

As an example, to reduce poverty and empower the poor and the vulnerable, a research team of well-trained agronomists, plant breeders, geneticists, soil scientists, plant pathologists and agribusiness developers could successfully produce a high nutrition value food crop that would contribute to the country’s food self-sufficiency and to the good nutrition, health and intelligence of the population.

Why should higher education and R&D be a top priority of the Philippine government? Because among the nations of the world, there is a strong correlation between R&D and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita (see Figure 2), and high quality R&D is best pursued in the context of higher education, particularly postgraduate education, in a university or academic setting. In the UNESCO Science Report 2010, the Philippines is shown to have the second lowest GERD (Gross Expenditure for R&D) as a percentage of GDP among Southeast Asian countries — at the same level as Vietnam and Myanmar. In 2002, GERD was 0.15 percent of GDP; in 2003, GERD was 0.14 percent of GDP; and in 2005, GERD was 0.12 percent of GDP. In subsequent years, Philippine GDP has grown significantly and GERD has been estimated also to increase, but GERD as a percentage of GDP has remained below 0.5 percent. The UNESCO recommends GERD that is one percent of GDP. In the advanced, industrialized, and progressive countries of the world, GERD far exceeds one percent of GDP.

Why should investment in postgraduate education be a major component of GERD? Because postgraduate education, particularly a thesis or dissertation, is the training ground where students learn the research process under the guidance of a mentor. Ideally, the graduate student becomes part of a research group led by a senior faculty/researcher. In the group is a hierarchy of middle-level and junior faculty/researchers, postdoctoral fellows, Ph.D. students, masters and undergraduate students and technical staff, who all work together on various aspects of a research topic, with the more senior members mentoring the junior members of the group.

By the end of the training, a masters graduate would have learned to do semi-independent research of a limited scope; a Ph.D. graduate would have demonstrated the capability to pursue independent research of a more complex nature, and a postdoctoral fellow would have gained enough experience and expertise to independently formulate new research proposals, and lead and manage a research group to undertake and publish the research. 

In the Philippines, there are very few such research groups that can mentor graduate students and produce MS and Ph.D. graduates. In fact, in 2005 the Philippines had the second lowest number of FTE (full-time equivalent) researchers in Southeast Asia at 81 per million population — much lower than Singapore at 6,088, Malaysia at 372, Thailand at 311, and Indonesia at 162 per million population. The lack of a critical mass of expert manpower is not only hampering innovation and problem solving in the country; it is also why we are not able to create enough research groups and produce  enough MS and Ph.D. graduates; and it is why from 1999-2009, in all of Southeast Asia, we had among the lowest number of scientific publications at 5,370 listed in the ISI Web of Knowledge (UNESCO Science Report 2010).

What kind of high-quality R&D output should a university produce for which a major investment is required? Two general types: 1) basic research with high academic impact; and 2) applied research or R&D with a high impact on society. The first type is pursued principally to advance knowledge, pursue discoveries and innovations, and to demonstrate the experience and competence, the quality of work, of a scientist through publications in international peer-reviewed scientific journals. This way, the scientist is gradually recognized as an expert in his/her field, nationally and internationally.

Once a scientist has established a track record of producing highly cited publications, i.e., he is a full-fledged scientist, his/her work can then be supported with major investments by the government or the private sector for the second type of R&D, which would be to develop or improve products, processes, services or policies that can help solve problems and cope with challenges faced by government, industry, the economy. The risk of failure or non-delivery of results, the risk of losing the investment, of a project led by an experienced scientist would be significantly reduced. The work of expert, innovative scientists can ultimately contribute to public and private good, through the creation of intellectual property assets and other value assets, the development of entrepreneurial activity and of globally competitive products and services, the creation of jobs and improvement in the productivity of firms and employees. 

How are we producing MS and Ph.D. graduates and promoting R&D in UP? As the country’s national university which aims to become a research-intensive university at the forefront of the national innovation system, UP is making major investments in expert manpower development. It has several monetary incentives and awards and recognition programs, such as the Scientific Productivity System, International Publication Awards, Research Dissemination Travel Grants, to encourage the faculty, researchers and graduate students to actively engage in research. Young faculty are given support to pursue their Ph.D. degrees and go on postdoctoral stints. Upon completion of the studies, they are awarded start-up grants to continue their research in UP.

To assist in teaching courses and mentoring masters and Ph.D. students in UP, foreign-based visiting professors are invited and hosted by UP units. Foreign-trained Ph.Ds are being recruited to “Come Back to UP for Good” as faculty, with incentives of a relocation package and start-up and step-up grants. The Emerging Interdisciplinary Research or EIDR program aims to bring together UP’s full-fledged scientists as program leaders to work with younger scientists as project leaders, across disciplines, across campuses, to pursue projects that address pressing problems in society. Let me tell you more about EIDR next week.

Aside from expert manpower development, UP is investing in physical and cyber infrastructure and other components that are required to create a culture of research, innovation and productivity in UP campuses (see Figure 3). Internationalization and quality assurance of education and research are also being pursued. However, the current level of investments in UP is hardly enough to cope with the expert manpower and R&D needs of the whole country. Only a long-term commitment of government to invest in knowledge-driven programs can propel the country to the next level of socio-economic growth.

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GP Padilla-Concepcion is a professor at the Marine Science Institute in UP Diliman where she team-teaches graduate courses and co-leads research on bioactive marine compounds and related biomedical research. She is an academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology and is the current vice president for academic affairs of the University of the Philippines System. E-mail her at

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