Saturday, March 03, 2007

What's wrong with science and university rankings?

I am in the midst of a lively email exchange with Professor Flor Lacanilao of UP, former Chancellor of the UP in the Visayas and chief of SEAFDEC in Tigbauan in the late 1980s. Prof Laca as students call him, is frank about his assessment of science in the country. He essentially says that even with a lot of good intentions and support, science has barely advanced in the country.This apparently has ruffled some feathers.

The Philippines has long recognised the importance of science in national development. We have seen an increasing level of support from government, international agencies and from the private sector. These organisations have been supporting scholarships, laboratory upgrading and improving science teaching in our colleges and universities. But if the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Commission of Higher Education (CHEd) has spent millions of pesos, why does Prof Laca say that our science is basically back where we started?

Scientific advancement is according to the professor is measured first in terms of publications. These establish an scientist's and by extension, a scientific community's credibility and by extension again, a nation's credibility. According to the prof, despite the numbers of science PhDs in the country, the publication rate is low. This according to him reflects on the latest Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) ranking of world universities. None of our universities apparently made the list. Forty percent of the ranking deals with academic peer review and this includes measuring publication output. As the THES puts it

"Our next measure, relating to research, is intended to examine how much intellectual power a university has relative to its size. It is based on citations of academic papers, since these are regarded as the most reliable measure of a paper’s impact. The world’s accepted authority on citations is Thomson Scientific in Philadelphia, formerly the Institute of Scientific Information".

Malaysia's and Singapore's National universities made the top 200 list. Even if the list limits itself to Asia, there is no mention of UP, Ateneo and LaSalle!

Online I read some reactions, some university administrators seem to say that what is really important is teaching and how the university contributes to national development. I don't contest this since all schools contribute to national development. But do schools advance or accelarate national development at a rate that would allow the Philippines to compete?

This is a hard question that our university officials will have to face. But science is a group activity that requires communication. The major way to do so is through scientific seminars, conferences and publications. The latter allows the world scientific community to read your results and conclusions since not all can attend conferences.

Since as one university administrator admitted, only a few returned the THES peer review survey about our universities, we can guess that the academics are not really familiar with what our universities are doing. Prof Laca says that this is because are scientists are not writing for publication.

He further says that most of our scientific output is reported as technical reports most of which aren't peer reviewed. These fall into the category called by scientists as "grey literature". This is not to say that all grey lit are of poor standard, it's just that these have not been assessed by other scientists and thus we have little guarantee that the results are of a high standard. Because of this many scientists (and the THES) don't bother to read and cite grey lit.

Lacanilao criticises our science career system where publication of grey lit is rewarded. In other countries only publication in an refereed journal counts for career rewards and promotion. Lacanilao continues that non-scientists (those who don't publish) are given labs and equipment with no ouput at all. Thus taxpayers' money is wasted.

People may agree or disagree with Professor Lacanilao. Despite his brutally frank views (which obviously has ruffed feathers in the science and education bureaucracies), we can conclude that the reputation and advancement of our universities is linked to a publication oriented academic culture. With good reputations, our universities should be able to attract students from all over the world and funding from overseas corporations and philantrophists. This would also reflect in better standards of pay for university staff. The spinoffs from academic development should translate to new technologies and skills. In the end this will create new jobs and advance the economy.

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