A Huge Talent Shortage is Behind the Philippines’ R&D Woes

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On May 2, 2016
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By John Alliage Morales (Second of Three Parts)

Stack produced a three-part series on the presidential candidates’ science and technology agenda. Part 1 talks about their R&D spending targets. Part 2 dives into the role of talent and human capital in R&D. Part 3 looks into the role of digital technology as a tool for inclusive development. You may download the unedited statements of the candidates at the end of this article.

The Presidentiables have big dreams for Filipino scientists, engineers, and researchers.

All of them would look after their welfare. One plans to send them abroad to get training. Another would attract students to take science, engineering, and mathematics in college.

Three of them would ask Filipinos from diaspora to return home and work here.

Presidential candidates know too well the importance of building a critical mass of S&T workers—and more particularly, R&D workers. They are the people involved, often outside the limelight, in the making of new ideas, new products, and new processes.

That’s why the candidates—at least three whom we talked to—proposed to raise R&D spending that’s ideally closer to 1% or 2% of GDP. This huge investment can mean the government can erect world-class labs for them, provide more research grants to them, and give them additional incentives.

The problem, however, is that their proposed expenditure rises too fast in the short period of six years, raising concerns whether the resources could be used efficiently by the available manpower.

After all, students will take years to finish their STEM degrees and eventually become part of the workforce. Researchers have also noted that the potential number of overseas scientists who might come home may not be enough to meet the country’s R&D needs.

The new president will thus face a huge dilemma.

He or she must be ambitious to substantially increase the country’s R&D spending. But he or she must also balance the growth of R&D expenditure with the growth in new researchers.

Current evidence bears out the relationship between R&D expenditure and manpower. World Bank data suggest that countries with higher R&D expenditure as a share of their GDP tend to have higher number of researchers per million people.

In 2009—the year of which the latest data is available—the national government, universities, and private industries altogether spent on R&D, which was equivalent to 0.11% of the GDP. Around that time, the country had 153 researchers per million. 

The Philippines has ever since become part of a fraternity of nations with low R&D expenditure and manpower. 

R&D GDP vs GDP Researchers-01

The next president thus carries an enormous task to lay down a catch-up strategy that gets us closer to the ideal ratio of researchers per million people. 

And he or she would do so under the most challenging times where the current pool is very small, where only few students are taking STEM degrees, and some of the brightest Filipinos are elsewhere.

The candidate’s promise

The candidates offer more or less the same proposals, for these are the basic things necessary to develop the country’s manpower.

Their proposals both underscore that much has still to be done and reflect the broader context that most segments of the Philippine economy have yet to be “innovation active.”

There are various reasons why the drive to innovate is not yet widespread. There’s an obvious absence of an innovation culture. Facilities are lacking. Universities and industries are, in most cases, not collaborating. Funding is tight.

But perhaps one of the biggest problems is manpower—or to be more precise, the shortage of local research scientists and engineers. Over the past decades, researchers have pointed out this wide manpower gap.

“The most important element in building R&D capability is human resource,” said Reynaldo Vea, president of the Mapua Institute of Technology, who studied local R&D in 2014. What is most important, he said, is to develop the manpower by an order of magnitude.

The presidential candidates proposed bigger investments in R&D, but there’s a lingering concern whether the additional manpower that may come out of their proposals may not be enough to catch up with the proposed increases in R&D expenditure. 

Nonetheless, they offered clear strategies on how they would develop the country’s manpower.

Grace Poe would invite world experts to the country’s institutes to make training opportunities available to STEM graduates and professionals. She would give them opportunities to work for a given period in the best laboratories abroad.

She would also network better with the educated Philippine diaspora. Part of her plan is to strengthen the Balik Scientists Program—that means making the process seamless and easy for foreign-based Filipino scientists.

These proposals are carved out from her broader “National Innovation System” agenda. She envisions that through this system, all stakeholders can work together to draft S&T programs and projects. This would also guarantee free flow of knowledge and information among stakeholders, fostering collaboration and partnerships.

Shepherding this system is a Cabinet-level, multi-stakeholder National Innovation Council that she would create, if she becomes the president.

Mar Roxas, on the other hand, would adopt measures to attract the best and the brightest to take undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate degrees in STEM. He would also provide additional incentives to scientists and technologists.

These proposals fall under his innovation paradigm, patterned after Stanford University’s Innovation Engine.

Roxas believes that there are three critical ingredients that make an economy innovative. One, there’s got to be a culture of innovation. Two, resources should be enough. And three, there’s an environment where new ideas are cultivated and then turned into productive use.

Miriam Defensor Santiago, meanwhile, makes her case by energizing collaboration, making educational changes, and improving human resource.  

STEM will be taught at all educational levels. She also plans to seek out scientists and researchers overseas to come home.

If she becomes the president, she would work with Congress to approve her science-related bills, many of which talk about improving the country’s manpower.

Rodrigo Duterte’s draft two-page plan is still broad to be analyzed in depth, but its S&T agenda is anchored on his vision of the Federal Philippines.  

He said that the Philippines is a good training ground for technologists, researchers, and scientists. There are enough graduates in the fields of medicine, engineering, and science. But he said, “we are not able to harness the potential and build the needed knowledge capital.”

Scientists are either lured to work abroad in spite of restrictions in their scholarship programs or sell their patents to foreign corporations. But he doesn’t expound on what solutions he would take.

He is clear though about one important idea: funneling more research grants to the regions.

(Jejomar Binay’s campaign team did not respond to our repeated requests for a written interview.)

Writing about the academe-industry collaboration in R&D, Vea cited that there should be 340 researchers per million people, based on UNESCO benchmark. With a population of about 100 million, the Philippines should have about 34,000 researchers involved in R&D.

The latest count as of 2009 was 13,091.

They were getting older, and they were also unevenly distributed across the nation. About six in every 10 worked in government’s R&D institutes and state universities.

Assuming the number of researchers would grow in a linear path, we won’t be able to close the gap in the next 20 years. This forecast offers a grim future, but also indicates the weight of the burden on the next president’s shoulder.

For sure,  there are no quick fixes. Reformsespecially in education—after all, can be felt in the next 10 to 20 years.

The manpower gap can’t be solved entirely in a short period—in the same way that attaining R&D expenditure that’s 2% of the GDP would take about 20 years, as experiences of other emerging markets show.

What the country needs right now is a catch-up plan for science & technology

The immediate task of the next president is to lay down a catch-up strategy that sets the course towards reaching the benchmark, say in 9-year, 14-year, or 19-year periods.

Choosing what path to take depends on how much the next administration could ideally afford to provide and how fast it could fill the gap.

The point, however, remains the same: changes that have real and direct impact will go beyond the term of the next president.

Extrapolating from the 2009 figure of 13,091, the base would grow exponentially to an estimated number of 18,742 in 2016.

From this 2016 base figure, the pool should grow annually by an average 9% to reach the benchmark by 2025, around 7% to hit the benchmark by 2030, and about 5% to get to the target by 2040. 

Required Researchers per Million People-01

In other words, by the time the next president steps down from office in 2022, the number of researchers in R&D should be in the range of 27,700 and 33,5000.

This is not an easy feat, requiring a big push in the first few years of the next administration.

Where can then the government find them?

There are plenty of programs to look at. The government’s flagship Balik Scientist Program is one—Poe and Santiago proposed to strengthen this program.

Foreign-based Filipinos will certainly provide the much-needed expertise, but primarily relying on them may not be a good option.

“The lateral entry into the talent pool of Fil-Am RSEs (research scientists and engineers) who will relocate back to the Philippines will be helpful, but cannot be expected to produce the same impact as it did in India, Taiwan, or Korea,” Vea noted.

He pointed out that there are fewer Fil-Am scientists and engineers. Only few Fil-Ams have reached the top technical and management position in Silicon Valley, unlike the Indians and Chinese.  

“The Indians in Silicon Valley returned home to Bangalore, with the expertise and, just as importantly, their American business connections, to successfully put up India’s version of a Silicon Valley,” Vea noted.

In the Philippines’ case, majority of the R&D workforce should come from homegrown talents.

Which now brings us to the next challenge: the relatively small number of students taking STEM degrees.

There’s an already worrying trend in the National Achievement Test: high schools students were performing worse in NAT than elementary students. NAT scores of high school students in math and science went downward in the period of 10 years, from 2000 to 2011.

This trend has far-reaching implications: these students, who are thinking of what course they would take in college, are veering away from pursuing science and math degrees, in part, because of their shaky foundation.

Official figures show a declining share in the number of STEM degree graduates. Out of 648,752 graduates in SY 2014-2015, around 3,000 students took mathematics degree; 7,000 finished science degree; and 66,000 completed engineering or technology-related degree.


Stem Graduates-01 (2)

A step-change in science and technology education is the most crucial ingredient in the entire six-year period of the next administration. Otherwise, it would be hard to catch up since the return to this investment takes a long while.

The next president will certainly not reap the full benefits on this return, but he or she will be able to take on the big task through rolling out medium-term solutions that can provide the needed push.

Tap science high schools

One recommendation put forward is tapping the graduates of science high schools. In the next decade, the pool of R&D workers could potentially come from the country’s science high schools—if only they are “shepherded” towards R&D.

Vea estimated that the combined graduates from science high schools roughly total to 12,700 a year. He recommended that out of this pool, selected graduates should be supported all the way through college and graduate school.

But that would also mean enforcing tighter monitoring among them.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some graduates of Philippine Science High School would transfer to arts and humanities and eventually end up finishing non-STEM degrees, further depleting the potential pool.

A right mix of incentives and penalties can entice graduates from completing their STEM degrees.

While the young are still in school, current professionals can fill in the gap. One feasible strategy is by giving them scholarships.

Provide massive scholarship grants

The next president could propose funding massive scholarship programs. Vea specifically suggested massive PhD scholarship programs.

Over the years, the government has been sending experts to graduate schools by giving out scholarships. The government has also been helping students to finish their undergraduate degrees. In return, they would render service once they’ve finished their degrees. 

The return to this investment is faster to reap: it would take two to three years for professionals to finish their master’s degrees, and another three to six years to obtain their PhDs.

If the next president decides to scale up publicly funded scholarship programs, he or she has to face one recurring problem: that is, some of the scholars are failing to complete their degrees on time or at all.

For instance, monitoring scholars’ performance has become a problem in one DOST-attached agency, Philippine Council for Industry Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development. In 2014, the agency released a total of P36.2 million scholarship grants to MS and PhD degree scholars. The program, according to the Commission on Audit, “did not serve its purpose since they were not able to finish their degrees.”

The lesson here is that as the government provides more scholarships, it has to step up its monitoring, enforcing penalties while providing those who complete their degrees with incentives.

Such turnaround from the scholarships program could ideally increase the pool, as long as many of the scholars are given opportunities to work in R&D activities, especially in the private sector.

And that makes targeting who would be granted scholarships critical.

Poe floated her plan that would identify industries ready for innovation acceleration. Roxas also plans to partner with the private sector through cost sharing and pool funding mechanisms. Santiago would expand PPPs to include S&T infrastructure.

These plans to engage the private sector more in R&D could be tied in to the scholarship program.

Scholars could be plucked out from the identified firms that need innovation.

The latest available data show that 56% of researchers involved in R&D work in the public sector, while only 28% belongs to the private sector. Yet, about 60% of the country’s R&D expenditure comes from the private sector.

Scholars could also come from state universities that have the potential to become centers of research and development.

“There can be no substantial collaborative R&D between industry and academe without substantial R&D capability in the school system,” Vea noted.

Industries, he said, are hesitant to work with the universities because of the “perceived lack of capability in schools.”

He recommended that a number of “research universities” be built from among the current state universities. But this recommendation implies major improvements in the quality of R&D work in public universities, and that includes the quality of researcher scientists and engineers.

For now, of course, what the candidates offer are blueprints of how they plan to create an economy built on innovation. These proposals will definitely evolve and be tempered by circumstances and political realities.

Once we’ve chosen a new president, that’s when we can truly debate the nitty-gritty details of what is the best approach to closing the manpower gap.

But what’s clear is that the next president should make a clear long-term strategy in developing the country’s R&D manpower.

In politics, it’s hard to sell long-term plans to an electorate demanding immediate change. But it’s harder to come out on top in the next round of elections when the current leaders set ambitious targets and then fail to deliver in the end. 

The next president won’t certainly finish the work in six years—and he or she must acknowledge this rather than setting a target that’s waiting to fail. 

But what is expected of the next president is to, once and for all, put science, technology, and innovation at the center of development.

The next six years will either help us sustain the momentum or put us back to square one.

Read your candidate’s agenda here:

[Stack] Rodrigo Duterte’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Miriam Defensor Santiago’s S&T Agenda

[Stack] Mar Roxas’ S&T Agenda

[Stack] Grace Poe’s S&T Agenda


John Alliage Morales edits this thought leadership platform. He has six years of progressive work experience in research, investigative reporting, and data journalism across different media platforms. He’s a fiscal transparency advocate and loves Excel. 

is Voyager Innovations' thought leadership platform for science, technology, and innovation.

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