The Labors of Science and Technology under a Developing Country

Written by Dagny Yenko
Illustration by Savio Aquino
Posted 18 June 2021

At the tail end of April, a tweet about an Atenean fresh-grad declining a salary of Php37k when she expected at least Php60k went viral. Among discussions on entry-level salaries, the tweet’s lack of context, and the cost of living, it was a fitting precursor to Labor Day on May 1st.

To commemorate the occasion, numerous groups organized protests calling for workers’ rights and an end to mass lay-offs. Many were quick to criticize these rallies, claiming they were “COVID superspreaders” and that they should take pity on our exhausted healthcare workers.

It’s true that our healthcare workers are exhausted, and behind that fatigue must be a root cause. So I ask the following questions: How much do healthcare and other STEM-related workers earn? Is the support they receive adequate? Why are we still in quarantine despite their hard work? Why not criticize the injustices that prompt people to protest?

Must be funny in the rich man’s world

The salary grade (SG) of most STEM careers in the government range from SG 10 to 14, which amount to approximately Php21k to Php33k. [1,2] For a single person, you can probably get by on that with a strictly budgeted lifestyle, but the harsh reality is that many Filipinos need to support their families — rent, bills, food, education, you name it. Whether you receive Php37k or less, a low wage is not a badge of honor. It means you didn’t have the privilege to negotiate or wait for a better offer. It is a symptom of a flawed labor market that exploits its workers.

Table of SGs

Salary of some STEM careers in the Philippines from the Department of Budget and Management.

Draining brains on loop

With foreign countries offering better pay, it’s no wonder then that the Philippines is known for being a top export of labor. Isn’t it a shame that so many universities in the Philippines produce all these STEM graduates only for many of them to leave? One can argue that they contribute to the economy through remittances, but this is not simply an economic problem. Exporting skilled labor means a shortage of those skilled workers in our own country and in turn, stunts our progress. But who can blame scientists and medical professionals when staying here can only promise low wages, poor working conditions, outdated technologies, and lack of employment opportunities? [3] These are especially prevalent in the healthcare sector. As medical institutions expect doctors and nurses to emigrate, they prefer not to “over-invest” in them, thus keeping the already abysmal salaries low. [4] This results in a positive feedback loop: low wages equal migrating skilled workers equal a lack of incentive to raise wages.

STEM is the key to progress

A developing country cannot progress without its workers. We all deserve better pay, especially considering the contributions every sector makes to society. Science and technology, in particular, is a major component in industrial development. It has the power to cultivate and strengthen a country’s self-sufficiency. With self-sufficiency, there will be a lesser need to import resources we can be capable of producing ourselves, such as testing kits and vaccines.

While our country is on the world’s longest lockdown, science and technology is needed now more than ever. A medical crisis requires a medical solution. But where is the support our researchers, scientists, and engineers need?

Mula sa kaban ng bayan

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommends at least 1% of a country’s GDP be spent on research and development (R&D);  and a benchmark of at least 380 researchers per million inhabitants. As of 2015, the Philippines invests 0.1% of its GDP on R&D and has 186 researchers per million inhabitants. [5] Compared to our neighboring countries, Malaysia invests 1.3% of their GDP with 2,054 researchers per million inhabitants and Japan invests 3.4% of their GDP with 5,328 researchers per million inhabitants. [5] It’s not hard to deduce why the Philippines remains a developing country.

R&D Expenditure

R&D Expenditure among Different Countries from UNESCO

Picture this: you’re a STEM undergraduate set to burn the midnight oil on many sleepless nights for at least four years, more if you pursue higher education. What awaits you is a mountain of experiments, laboratory reports, journal articles, research proposals, and what have you. On the other side of it all… meager pay and a constant shortage of financial assistance, while you watch the Php15B PhilHealth scandal, the Php2B private jet of the President, the Php50M SEA Games cauldron, the Php389M dolomite beach, PNP’s Christmas bonuses totaling Php7.98B, DepEd’s regular procurement of Php4.2M Christmas ham and cheese, a brand new anti-poor hardly necessary Nayong Pilipino vaccination site, and so much more. [6-12] This, as you hear the words “wala na tayong pera” over and over again in the midst of a $98.5B foreign debt with nothing but a crumbling healthcare system and an endless lockdown to show for it. [13-15]

LF: Government support

As if that wasn’t discouraging enough, the scientific community frequently suffers budget cuts and discrediting remarks from government officials. 

The Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) budget was cut by Php76M this year, which will heavily affect 90% of research projects, including that of cancer research, among others.[16-18] Meanwhile, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) gets to keep their Php19B as if they’re relevant in the middle of a pandemic. [19]

The COVID-19 testing kits developed by UP were seemingly forgotten in favor of more expensive, imported kits, despite being a cheaper and still perfectly efficient alternative. [20-21] When questioned, the Foreign Affairs Secretary vehemently responds in a tweet, “I am not gonna let our people die in the name of Filipino first.” [22] (For the record, it’s not about “Filipino first”, but about saving time and money, among other advantages.)

Who could forget our Manila Bay beautification project, which dumped an additional Php265M just this May, against the recommendations of numerous groups of scientists. [23-25] The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Undersecretary went so far as to insult our experts as “bayaran”. [26] Though since apologized for, that doesn’t make the venomous comment any less unprofessional from a DENR official. What’s more distasteful about the dolomite beach is its absence from the National Economic and Development Authority’s (NEDA) plans. [27-28] Are our researchers commissioned only to be neglected?

Even prior to the pandemic, the government shut down Project NOAH (as if climate change isn’t a looming dilemma), which for all we know could have mitigated the disaster of last year’s Typhoon Ulysses. [29] And of course, there’s Senator Cynthia Villar’s vexing “Baliw na baliw kayo sa research. Aanhin ninyo ba ‘yung research?” like the quality of our lives don’t depend on R&D. [30]

Is there a world you long to see?

As a STEM student myself, I’m furious. The people deserve better. We deserve the capacity to develop local S&T, to save time and money instead of relying on costly imports. We deserve to own and protect our land and seas, to cultivate our resources, to engage in a symbiotic relationship with our environment through R&D, instead of selling it to foreign powers. We deserve the chance to act, to improve our lives, to serve our communities, not to “wait and see”, like our President claimed. [31]

Researchers, scientists, and engineers do not earn enough. They are not financed nor supported enough — they are severely undervalued. Even on tight funds, the outstanding work they produce remain neglected. We can be so much more. So I ask again: Why not criticize the government’s neglect for our scientists? Why not organize, lobby, and mobilize for our fellow scientists, healthworkers, and engineers? We should not settle for this “new normal” that has further tormented our skilled workers. We deserve a better normal, for them and for the Filipino people.

References

  1. Republic of the Philippines, Department of Budget and Management. Index of Occupational Services, Occupational Groups, Classes and Salary Grade. [Internet]. [updated 2017 June 07; cited 2021 May 14]. Available from: https://www.dbm.gov.ph/index.php/27-publications/160-index-of-occupational-services-occupational-groups-classes-and-salary-grade
  2. Republic of the Philippines, Department of Budget and Management. National Budget Circular No. 584. [Internet]. 2021 [updated 2021 January 19; cited 2021 May 14]. Available from: https://www.dbm.gov.ph/index.php/283-national-budget-circular-2021/1801-national-budget-circular-no-584
  3. Dimaya RM, McEwen MK, Curry LA, Bradley EH. Managing health worker migration: a qualitative study of the Philippine response to nurse brain drain. Hum Resour Health [Internet]. 2012 Dec [cited 2021 May 17];10(47). Available from: https://human-resources-health.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1478-4491-10-47 doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/1478-4491-10-47
  4. Iravani MR. Brain drain Problem: A Review. IJBSS [Internet]. 2011 Aug [cited 2021 May 17];2(15):284-289. Available from: http://ijbssnet.com/view.php?u=http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_2_No_15_August_2011/32.pdf
  5. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. How much does your country invest in R&D? [Internet]. [cited 2021 May 17]. Available from: http://uis.unesco.org/apps/visualisations/research-and-development-spending/
  6. Jalea G, Peralta J. Whistleblower claims ₱15 billion stolen by PhilHealth execs in fraud schemes. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2020 Aug 4 [cited 2021 May 17];News. Available from: https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/8/4/PhilHealth-P15-billion-stolen-mafia-execs.html
  7. Romero A. Palace defends purchase of P2-B jet for Duterte. PhilStar Global [Internet]. 2019 Oct 9 [cited 2021 May 17];Headlines. Available from: https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/10/09/1958736/palace-defends-purchase-p2-b-jet-duterte
  8. France-Presse A. ‘Imeldific’: Philippines anger over P50-million SEA Games cauldron. INQUIRER.net [Internet]. 2019 Nov 22 [cited 2021 May 17];Sports. Available from: https://sports.inquirer.net/374340/imeldific-philippines-anger-over-p50-million-sea-games-cauldron
  9. Moaje M. 2020: Manila Bay dolomite sand project stirs controversy. Philippine News Agency [Internet]. 2020 Dec 30 [cited 2021 May 17]. Available from: https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1125931
  10. The Philippine Star. The Philippine National Police (PNP) on Monday released Christmas bonuses and cash gifts to its personnel amounting to P7.98 billion. | via Manny Tupas. [Twitter]. 2020 Nov 24 [cited 2021 May 17]. Available from: https://twitter.com/PhilippineStar/status/1331148728321806336?s=20
  11. Philstar.com. DepEd says it cancelled today the bidding for ham and cheese worth P4.2 million, originally intended for its central office Christmas celebration. | via @jvrmateoSTAR. [Twitter]. 2020 Nov 14 [cited 2021 May 17]. Available from: https://twitter.com/PhilstarNews/status/1327520973344542720?s=20
  12. Kabagani LJ. DOH, Nayong Pilipino set to sign deal for mega vaccination site. Philippine News Agency [Internet]. 2021 May 13 [cited 2021 May 17]. Available from: https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1140179
  13. CNN Philippines Staff. Duterte admits gov’t has no more funds for aid. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2020 Aug 3 [cited 2021 May 17];News. Available from: https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/8/3/duterte-no-more-funds-for-aid.html
  14. Lalu GP. Duterte asks for patience as gov’t scrambles to buy distance learning gadgets. INQUIRER.net [Internet]. 2020 Jun 16 [cited 2021 May 17];News. Available from: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1292115/wala-na-tayong-pera-duterte-seeks-patience-as-govt-scrambles-to-buy-distance-learning-gadgets
  15. Esmael L. PH foreign debt rises to $98.5B in 2020. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2021 Mar 20 [cited 2021 May 17];Business. Available from: https://cnnphilippines.com/business/2021/3/20/ph-foreign-debt-2020.html
  16. Ramos CM. Lacson hits P76-M cut in DOST’s research budget: ‘Why so selfish?’. INQUIRER.net [Internet]. 2020 Sep 10 [cited 2021 May 18];News. Available from: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1333801/why-so-selfish-lacson-hits-p76-m-cut-in-dosts-research-budget
  17. Cepeda M. Proposed DOST research budget slashed; cancer studies to take a hit. Rappler [Internet]. 2020 Sep 9 [cited 2021 May 18];Nation. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/nation/proposed-dost-research-budget-slashed-cancer-studies-affected
  18. Philippine Daily Inquirer. DOST budget cut to affect 888 research projects. INQUIRER.net [Internet]. 2020 Oct 24 [cited 2021 May 18];News. Available from: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1351864/dost-budget-cut-to-affect-888-research-projects
  19. CNN Philippines Staff. ₱19B NTF-ELCAC fund stays in Congress-approved budget. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2020 Dec 20 [cited 2021 May 19];News. Available from: https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/12/10/P19-billion-NTF-ELCAC-stays-Congress-ratified-budget.html
  20. Sabillo K. Why PH will benefit from locally-made COVID-19 test kits. ABS-CBN News [Internet]. 2020 Mar 18 [cited 2021 May 18];News. Available from: https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/03/18/20/coronavirus-philippines-covid19-test-kits-local
  21. Lozada B. Opposition senators: local testing kits collecting dust due to Duque’s inaction. INQUIRER.net [Internet]. 2020 Jul 18 [cited 2021 May 18];News. Available from: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1308718/drilon-hontiveros-local-testing-kits-collecting-dust-due-to-duques-inaction
  22. Teddy Locsin Jr. Why? Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE PROVED TO FUCKING WORK THAT’S FUCKING WHY? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. SHUT UP IF YOU HAVE NOTHING INTELLIGENT TO SAY. PUTANGINA. I AM NOT GONNA LET OUR PEOPLE DIE IN THE NAME OF FILIPINO FIRST. PUTANGINA. [Twitter]. 2020 Jul 21 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://twitter.com/teddyboylocsin/status/1285439922472538112?s=20
  23. Gozum I. DENR allots P265M for second phase of Manila Bay rehabilitation project. Rappler [Internet]. 2021 May 10 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/nation/denr-allots-millions-second-phase-manila-bay-dolomite-project
  24. Bordey H. Scientists’ group says ‘dolomite’ project like throwing money into sea. GMA News Online [Internet]. 2021 Apr 16 [cited 2021 May 18];News. Available from: https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/783951/scientists-group-says-dolomite-project-like-throwing-money-into-sea/story/
  25. ‘No shortcuts’: UP marine scientists say dolomite won’t help solve Manila Bay’s problems. Rappler [Internet]. 2020 Sep 30 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/moveph/up-marine-scientists-say-dolomite-not-help-solve-manila-bay-problems
  26. Moaje M. Antiporda apologizes to UP over ‘bayaran’ remark. Philippine News Agency [Internet]. 2020 Oct 15 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1118706
  27. Rivas R. Artificial beach in Manila Bay not in NEDA’s master plan, DENR admits. Rappler [Internet]. 2020 Sep 8 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://www.rappler.com/nation/denr-admits-artificial-beach-manila-bay-not-included-neda-master-plan
  28. Republic of the Philippines, National Economic and Development Authority. Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan. [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: http://mbsdmp.com/reports
  29. Mateo J. Gov’t shuts down Project NOAH. PhilStar Global [Internet]. 2017 Feb 2 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://www.philstar.com/business/science-and-environment/2017/02/02/1668037/govt-shuts-down-project-noah
  30. Bonquin C. Villar questions Agriculture Department’s ‘crazy’ obsession with corn research. CNN Philippines [Internet]. 2019 Oct 10 [cited 2021 May 18]. Available from: https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2019/10/10/Cynthia-Villar-Department-of-Agriculture-corn-research.html
  31. CNN Philippines. Duterte: We have to wait for the West to study and come up with solutions. Tayo dito, wait-and-see attitude. Wala naman tayong magawa. [Twitter]. 2020 Dec 26 [cited 2021 May 19]. Available from: https://twitter.com/cnnphilippines/status/1342788989355323393?s=20

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