Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wanted more science PhDs

Professor Caesar Saloma, Dean of the University of the Philippines science college has this to say in an Inquirer video interview about the need for more PhDs to kick start the Philippines' development

While Prof Saloma specifically deals with physics, what he says actually applies to all the sciences in the country. There has been tremendous improvement when the Philippine science establishment began planning for improved graduate training in the sciences. Ateneo de Manila's president, Father Ben Nebres, who is a mathematician narrated in his lecture for the UP's centennial celebrations how they did it for math more than 30 years ago. Father Nebres noted the need for networks of scientists.

But while the effort to produce PhDs is quite successful, we still have problems. If you look at the roster of our practicing science PhDs, we have specialists in many fields but these fields have only one specialist each. For science to progress in the Philippines, we need teams of specialists and this means at least three PhDs should be working on a specific field. For example, the Philippines has only one practicing biogeographer (yours truly!).But there are a lot of environmental problems that need serious biogeographic research. Obviously one person can't do it all. There is little material for a network.

Other disciplines have it a bit better. Some disciplines in physics and the marine sciences have 2 or 3 PhDs working in their fields. These labs are now producing their own PhDs but given the limitations we face, much more can be done. Obviously as Saloma points out, we don't have enough PhD mentors and research supervisors.

Professor Saloma notes that in physics (and the sciences),we lack people with PhDs. While a lot of people have science degrees, the PhD qualification is the professional qualification to practice science. If one has a BSc or an MSc, these are good science qualifications but do not qualify a person to conduct independent research. It is analogous to a lawyer or physician getting his/her JD or MD but still hasn't passed the bar exams or the boards. The PhD requires the final examination (the dissertation/thesis defence) before one is allowed to practice science. The PhD is the licensure exam of a scientist.

Passing your licensure exam doesn't mean the end of your education. For doctors and other professionals, continuing education is a must. And so it is with scientists. Unfortunately we still think getting a doctorate is the crown of one's education. Actually it is just the beginning.

One problem facing our graduate programs is the lack of competent research supervisors. The reasons are myriad. One factor is the lack of research funding and facilities and consequently scientists can take only at least 2 students per year. Another is that some scientists are burdened with consultancy and extension work, some are required since the public sector has a pressing need, some consultancy work is needed for extra income since scientists'salaries can't pay the bills!

Also I know from experience that students want the easy way out. Thus they choose supervisors who are not too demanding. But this has its downside. Demanding supervisors can really train you well. While their standards are high, the research habits and discipline one imbibes from their labs prepare you for the highly competitive world of the science profession.

But as they say, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. I restate this as,if you can't take the research, get out of the lab(and out of the graduate program)! I am quite disappointed by students who expect doing science is a cakewalk and when they are under me, quit!

But all good scientists never quit. We can name a few'; Galileo, Mendel, Einstein. As for Einstein, he flunked two PhD exams, just like I did.

But I couldn't quit. Einstein and I belong to the same elite club. We flunked our PhD exams twice!

This is not to scare students but the DOST has a lot of scholarships in science and technology but there isn't enough takers.

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