Can ‘elite scientists’ save PH? | Inquirer Opinion

NATIONAL SCIENTISTS (L-R) Edgardo Gomez, Ph.D. (marine biology); Ramon Barba, Ph.D. (horticulture); Science Secretary Mario Montejo; President Aquino; William Padolina, president, National Academy of Science and Technology; Gavino Trono, Ph.D. (marine biology) and Angel Alcala, Ph.D. (biological science) GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

The article of Ernesto M. Pernia, Ramon L. Clarete and Gisela P. Padilla-Concepcion, titled “Investing in ‘suprastructure’” (Talk of the Town, Aug. 3), anticipates the coming age of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) economic integration.

In doing so, the authors outline a map for the future direction of Philippine higher educational institutions based on the development of an “elite pool of scientists” that will propel Philippine society to higher levels of economic growth and enable it to compete with our neighbors.


We, on the other hand, offer a different scenario based on divergent assumptions.

No rush on AEC


The article asserts that the urgency in building the country’s knowledge capital, which they quaintly refer to as “suprastructure,” is due to the “coming into full effect” of the so-called Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

This assumption, however, is false and deceptive. The AEC remains an elusive goal and will most certainly not be achieved by 2015. A 2013 study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) concludes that Asean “has no prospect of coming close to … (a) single market by the AEC’s 2015 deadline—or even by 2020 or 2025.”

The ADB-Iseas study says: “Although the self-imposed deadline for the realization of the AEC is 2015, it should not be viewed as a hard target. One should not expect 2015 to see Asean suddenly transformed, its nature and processes abruptly changed, its members’ interests substantially altered.

Milestone year

Rather, 2015 should be viewed more as a milestone year—a measure of a work in progress—rather than as a hard target year.”

Furthermore, a 2013 survey by the Economist of 147 big companies operating in the Asean region shows that only 6.3 percent expect that the AEC can be put in place by 2015.

Finally, Hong Kong-based risk analyst Gavin Greenwood observed in April that AEC 2015 “aspirations appear at best highly optimistic and at worst almost delusional.”


Asean economies have been trying to integrate since 1992 when the Asean Free Trade Area was set up. Yet, integration has been a tortuous and difficult process.

Asean integration is seriously hampered by strong notions of national sovereignty among its members, clashing national economic strategies, the preponderance of nontariff barriers, constraints to the free flow of labor, a consistently low level of intra-Asean trade, noncomplementary export product lines and dominance by only three national economies over the rest of the regional grouping.

Instead of using the illusory AEC 2015 as a spur to hurriedly boost the country’s knowledge capital, we should look at both the internal and external structural factors that brought about underdevelopment in the educational system in the first place.

Internal integration

The mainstream development agenda is focused largely on national economies “integrating” into global and regional economies. But what has practically disappeared from development discourse is the notion of “internal integration” or “articulation.”

Robert Wade, in “Governing the Market,” explains that this refers to how dense or thin the links are between and among a country’s various productive sectors.

Internal integration implies the presence of thriving domestic industries, which produce for a local market of wage earners. Under this setup, “export demand” is not always the main source of growth while wages are seen “not just as a cost of production” but also as a “source of sales and economic growth.”

OFWS, real estate, BPOs

In the Philippines, relatively high levels of growth experienced in recent years are largely driven by private consumption propelled by remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the majority of whom are engaged in low-productive work.

Growth has also been fueled by a rebound in electronic exports, real estate boom and lopsidedly strong service sector, particularly in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry.

While BPO firms provide an important source of revenue for the government, it employs only relatively highly skilled workers constituting a mere one percent of the labor force.

Using the more reliable indicators of Social Weather Stations (SWS), adult joblessness has been consistently above 20 percent since May 2005 and hit 25.9 percent (11.8 million adults) by August 2014. Furthermore, the SWS survey placed self-rated poverty at 55 percent (11.5 million families) as of July.

Quality jobs

Amid this scenario, we should prioritize “internal integration” by focusing on the creation of quality jobs and significantly increase social spending in areas not limited to social assistance programs.

For starters, we should dispel the notion that more “external integration” will automatically boost “internal integration” (or vice versa). We should, therefore, not always assume that “Asean integration” will always be good for the economy.

On the contrary, if ill-prepared—and this appears to be the case—Asean integration will do more harm than good for the Filipino people.

Myth of scientific elite

A disturbing aspect of Pernia et al.’s analysis is their almost exclusive focus on the central role that elite higher educational institutions (HEIs), like the University of the Philippines, play in solving Philippine problems.

Their prescriptions include increasing the number of patent applications and publication of research, improving university rankings, raising salaries of higher education teaching staff and producing more graduates with MAs, MSs and Ph.D.s.

Hence, their concern with building up what they call “an elite pool of scientists” armed with the latest in technological skills.

The authors, however, mistakenly view technology as neutral and disregard the social, economic and political context under which technology and the scientists who utilize them operate.

Socially determined

Technology, according to Herbert Marcuse, is socially determined and takes value-laden forms, like any other political and social institution.

University of Birmingham political scientist Ross Abbinnett points out that “technology … is not a mere instrument which remains external to the purposes of human beings; rather it is a force which shapes the totality of social, economic and ideological relationships which constitute the mode of production.”

Andrew Feenberg, of San Diego State University, points to the “technocracy thesis,” which holds that “human beings have become mere cogs in the social machinery, objects of technical control in much the same way as raw materials and the natural environment” and that “the design of these technologies and therefore, the criteria of efficiency, is not neutral but is normatively biased through delegations that favor the hegemonic interests.”

Seen in this manner and without critiquing existing unequal socioeconomic structures, the scientific elite extolled by the authors becomes simply an unwitting tool for the perpetuation of an unjust, unequal and dysfunctional order.


They will be no better than the discredited technocrats of the Marcos martial law regime who naively thought that they could remain above politics and just do their job in managing the economy according to their preconceived notions of growth and development.

It is, therefore, a mistake to focus on the production of a “scientific elite.” The more appropriate agenda should instead be on democratizing and making more accessible quality education throughout the country, strengthening and advancing not just science, but also the social sciences and humanities.


The Philippines has been an economic laggard because its policymakers have been generally averse to an industrial policy, which seeks to identify and cultivate important or strategic industries and to proactively mobilize an array of policy tools at its disposal for development, which includes industrial upgrading and diversification.

This aversion stems from a neoliberal mind-set that has demonized government intervention, typecasting it as inherently inefficient and marked by rent-seeking activities that distort the market.

“Industrialization,” however, has of late regained currency among policymakers. ADB chief economist Changyong Rhee recently argued that only genuine industrialization and not the mere mindless expansion of low-productivity service sectors can serve as the basis for sustained Philippine development and prosperity.

Moreover, the World Bank, after years of persuading the Philippine government to limit spending for tertiary education,  recently changed its tune and is now convinced that there is, in fact, a correlation between education in mathematics, science and engineering, and improved economic performance.

Comparisons with Thailand and Malaysia demonstrate that the Philippines lags far behind in the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on research and development (R&D).

The Philippines is furthermore adjudged the lowest in terms of quality of scientific research institutions compared with Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Recently, the Philippines was ranked 100th (out of 143 countries) for “innovation” while Malaysia was ranked 33rd, Thailand 48th and Indonesia 87th (Global Innovation Index 2014).

Low education spending

The Philippines spent the least on education in 2010 with 2.65 percent of GDP compared with Indonesia (2.77 percent), Thailand (5.79 percent) and Malaysia (5.94 percent). The country has also consistently placed at the bottom-rung in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

The subpar performance of the Philippines in basic and tertiary education as well as in scientific productivity can be effectively and practically addressed only by adequately increasing state support.

Poor excluded

However, intensifying privatization schemes and increases in tuition are increasingly excluding the poor even from public HEIs.

Instead of democratizing science and harnessing the immense talents and untapped intelligence of the whole Philippine population, we are instead producing an “elite pool of scientists” all dressed up with seemingly nowhere definite to go.

For as long as local industries remain “backward” and struggling on their own, there will be little demand for R&D because the industrial upgrading and diversification required for structural transformation will generally remain minuscule.

Besides, the idea of synergizing and mobilizing “government-industry-academe partnerships” with a view to qualitatively and quantitatively scaling up the industrial sector, requires an “interventionist” government that creates the public space to convene such a partnership and direct it toward a clear developmental vision.

Of what use will high levels of R&D be if policymakers are not motivated to promote the country’s industries through industrial upgrading and diversification?

All the Ph.D.s and researchers the Philippines would produce would end up abroad as scientific OFWs, or worse, as low-paid researchers in R&D outsourcing schemes.

Science for people

The 2013 Human Development Index Report ranked the Philippines a lowly 117th out of 187 countries surveyed, with a characterization of “medium development.” Singapore (9th), Thailand (89th) and Indonesia (108th) all ranked higher.

The country has, thus, not effectively addressed the issues of poverty, inequality, food security and environmental degradation, which impact heavily on the welfare of ordinary Filipinos. Shouldn’t our efforts be directed first at securing the primary needs of our people?

However, under a system where the benefits of economic growth have continually redounded to only a select few, any advances in science and technology will be automatically appropriated by those who control society’s means of production and distribution.

Serve needs, aspirations

What then is the purpose of developing and expanding society’s scientific knowledge? It is not, as the authors claim, to compete with our Asian neighbors in a relentless drive to outdo and outsell each other.

Scientific development must be made to serve the people’s needs and aspirations—to end poverty and inequality, and to build a better and environmentally sustainable life for all.

It is also to diffuse knowledge among the people so that they themselves can be active and creative participants in the scientific pursuit of knowledge.

What the Philippines should instead strive for is to develop and nurture a science for and by the people, not focus on an “elite pool of scientists” divorced from the realities of Philippine socioeconomic and political realities.

(Eduardo C. Tadem, Ph.D., is professor of Asian Studies and editor, Asian Studies [Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia]; Ramon G. Guillermo, Ph.D., is associate professor in Philippine Studies and national president, All UP Academic Employees Union; Maria Victoria R. Raquiza is assistant professor of public administration; and Nicolo del Castillo is assistant professor of architecture—all at the University of the Philippines Diliman.)

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Elite scientists, National scientists, scientists, Talk of the Town
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Fearless views on the news

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

© Copyright 1997-2023 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.