Science scholars and the unscientific problems gov’t throws their way
Going into her first year in the Master of Science (MS) Meteorology program in UP Diliman, Marielle Ann Alemania felt hopeful and excited about the prospect of acquiring knowledge for the country’s benefit.
Alemania, who said she has always been fascinated by the weather and environment since high school, dreams of working for weather bureau Pagasa in the future. “I aim to conduct research studies that may be used to draft policies on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation,” she said.
So it came as a blessing to her when she qualified for an MS scholarship through the Accelerated Science and Technology Human Resource Development Program of the National Science Consortium (ASTHRDP-NSC). The scholarship program offers MS students P25,000 in monthly stipend and book allowance of P20,000 per academic year, among other privileges.
One of seven available graduate scholarships from the Department of Science and Technology—Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI), the ASTHRDP-NSC aims to improve the country’s competitiveness and capability to innovate through Science and Technology (S&T).
It also seeks to accelerate training of scientists needed for Research and Development (R&D). In 2019, SEI handed out a total of 5,481 scholarships for all programs with 3,353 of those under ASTHRDP-NSC.
On paper, DOST-SEI is doing ‘God’s work’: by providing enough graduate scholarships to promising Filipino scientists and researchers, Alemania and many other scholars get the support they need to complete their research projects and contribute to knowledge advancement.
Actual color may vary
Reality, however, is proving to be both different and difficult.
According to Alemania, she and other new scholars received a congratulatory e-mail last Sep. 25 from the DOST informing them that they have qualified for the scholarship program for the first semester of the current academic year.
They were also told to wait for another e-mail about contract signing and the orientation for new scholars. Since then, however, they haven’t received any contract to sign. The promised financial support from the government remained to be just that: a promise.
Since they didn’t have anything to hold on to, having to study without any stipend for the current semester has made Alemania and the other scholars anxious. “As far as I am concerned, we were not given any assurance at all,” she said.
Hannah Mae Sucgang is no stranger to this apprehension. A second-year MS Marine Science student in UP Diliman, she is also a graduate scholar of the ASTHRDP-NSC program, like Alemania.
But while Sucgang and other continuing scholars have obtained financial aid, release of such funds is usually delayed, resulting in a backlog of monthly stipends.
Sucgang said the tedious process for scholars to get financial support is aggravating the delay in the release of funds for the scholarship. For example, the scholars’ stipend for October to November is still being processed.
As if the delay in funding isn’t bad enough, the pandemic is adding to the scholars’ woes.
Last Nov. 10, the DOST-SEI issued a memo saying that graduate scholars in universities that shortened the first semester will receive a stipend equivalent to only three to four months instead of five. For MS students, like Sucgang and Alemania, it meant their combined stipend of P125,000 per semester will be cut by almost half to P75,000.
These setbacks have taken a toll on the scholars.
The financial assistance provided by the government is supposed to help cover the students’ daily expenses on rent, utilities and basic necessities. The pandemic forced the students to buy gadgets and pay for internet access out of pocket for online classes. Since the scholarship program bars them from getting jobs to have a source of income, Alemania and other scholars had been forced to find other ways to survive.
“How can we focus on our courses and research work if we still have to think of ways to get by?” Alemania said. She said that, to fully function in the academe, scholars have to be in top shape.
Sucgang, who also serves as the current UP College of Science Student Council chair, has also been vocal about the situation. The persistent problems hounding the system is discouraging others from staying in the program and wanting to contribute.
“Support for students who pursue higher studies to become scientists could really help solve many of the country’s problems,” Sucgang said. “We have too few scientists here because there are limited opportunities to become one—it’s difficult to be a scientist here.”
Last Nov. 27, different graduate students got the chance to have a dialogue with Dr. Josette Biyo, DOST-SEI director, and air their concerns.
Alemania said nothing was discussed about the delay in contract signing.
Asked about the delayed stipend, Biyo said the funds were already released to the university. But Dr. Giovanni Tapang, UP College of Science dean, disputed Biyo, saying the funds for the scholars have not reached the university.
In an interview, Tapang acknowledged that the DOST-SEI could find more efficient solutions in handling the scholarship programs, which would require hiring more people or devolving some of the work to project leaders assigned to each university.
He said he was aware that the DOST-SEI also lacks people to process the funds. With thousands of scholars in UP Diliman alone and only a ‘handful’ of people, “it’s not surprising that the paperwork is delayed,” said Tapang.
“We’re just here to help the program become more efficient. There are many solutions that can be done,” Tapang said.
What drew the ire of scholars, though, was a remark by Biyo in response to Jamika roque, a second year PhD Physics graduate student and DOST-SEI scholar.
Straight PhD programs allow students to pursue their doctorate straight from their bachelor degrees. The curriculum is rigorous and typically shorter. In UP, for example, a straight PhD graduate can finish a program in just four instead of five years. Also, PhD scholars get P33,000 in monthly stipend and P20,000 in book allowance for an academic year.
But Roque and other straight PhD scholars got only P25,000 in monthly stipend for their first year, based on a 2016 memo that says financial aid for straight PhD students should be equal to those in MS in their first year.
Roque, in a video clip posted on Twitter, was supposed to argue against the memo on the stipend rates.The straight PhD scholars claim it was technically illegal for the DOST-SEI to give them stipend rates for MS in their first year because that was “not stipulated” in their contracts.
But Biyo cut off Roque even before the scholar could finish talking. “If you want to sue the SEI regarding the contract, we will face it,” said Biyo.
“If you do not want our program, then you can always do away with the program,” the DOST-SEI director continued.
Many took offense at the remark. The DOST quickly became a top Twitter topic that day, garnering almost 17,000 tweets just hours after the clip was posted. Scholars and other students quickly shared their woes. The entire video containing the clip has since been deleted from the official DOST-SEI page.
— JSF 🦇 (@jsfidelino) November 27, 2020
Roque expressed frustration at what she said was Biyo’s unwillingness to discuss the matter and her uncalled-for remarks. “I believe that she shouldn’t be encouraging the scholars to leave the program whenever they question or express concern over a policy,” she said.
The scholars are challenging the DOST-SEI’s view that straight PhD students take on MS level workloads in their first year. Roque said though they mostly take MS subjects in the first year, they need to maintain a grade of 1.75 compared with just 2.0 for MS students.
“Some of us take PhD-exclusive subjects already in our first year. We can also start working on our dissertation research in our first year” Roque said.
Tapang echoed the sentiment. He said the memo failed to recognize that PhD students, regardless of distinction, go through the same rigorous program.
“Here in Diliman, you will work at the lab right away because we want you to finish your PhD as fast as possible. If it takes the whole five years to do your experiment, then we’ll ask you from day one to do the experiments because that’s what we want in the program,” Tapang said.
“If you want to invite students to get their PhD then you should treat them like PhD students,” he added.
Roque and 324 other scholars from other universities sent a petition to Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato Dela Pena appealing for two actions—to recall the Nov. 10 memo and ensure continuity of financial support for the scholars during the pandemic and institute reforms to make stipend processing faster.
The Inquirer has sought the DOST-SEI for comment but to no avail yet.
The government’s graduate scholarship program is just one of many issues haunting the local scientific community.
This year, the DOST obtained a budget of P20.5 billion, which is just 0.5 percent of the entire P4.1-trillion national budget. The SEI allotted P4.65 billion or 98 percent of its budget for its S&T scholarship programs, according to the 2020 General Appropriations Act.
No administration has given full priority to science and technology: according to former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia last February, government spending on R&D in 2020 was just 0.15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, or GDP, the lowest in Southeast Asia.
This figure is far from the 1 percent worldwide average, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
In a country that is yet to value S&T research, Tapang said the government should carry out programs to increase the number of local experts and address problems that discourage interest in science jobs.
“We only have 9,800 researchers per million. That’s why we need these experts right now. We can’t wait for the next pandemic and only train experts then,” he said.
Tapang also called on the DOST to strengthen support for the science profession not only through scholarships but also through efficiency in programs. He said it is to the government’s benefit for the scholarship programs to be efficiently implemented “because it’s going to be for the country’s good in the long run.”
For now, scholars like Alemania, Sucgang and Roque have no choice but to soldier on.
Until an effective and efficient system is in place, where scientists and researchers don’t have to beg for support, until government institutions recognize the importance of investing in science, the fight continues.
But the scholars hope genuine change comes soon.
“If we really want to advance S&T in the Philippines, we should start with building a conducive environment that would encourage more Filipinos to take active participation in STEM-related careers,” Alemania said.
“Our passion and talent will not be sufficient to elevate the status of scientific research and development in the country,” she ended
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