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RP scientists to blame for poor science

by Flor Lacanilao, PhD.
Retired professor of marine science
UP Diliman

(NOTE: The following is Prof. Lacanilao’s reply to comments sent to Star Science editor on his series of four Star Science papers: I. R&D process, II. Research in medicinal plants, III. Training graduate students, and IV. Problems with media and scientists. The fifth paper, “Measuring research performance“, was not printed but is now available here.)

Dear (editor),

In your earlier email, you told me what some scientists think about my Star Science papers. You said, “many highly respected and productive scientists I interact with have noted the adversarial, critical, conflict-driven tone/thread of your articles which can be counter productive, when conveyed many times/repeatedly.”

Thanks for telling me. I always welcome criticisms. They help me clarify some ideas for myself. I wonder why none of them sent his or her comments to me directly, or copy to me. My e-mail address is at the end of each article. I have always thought that problems are best resolved if brought up directly with the one concerned.

My first reaction was just to leave their comments at that. But as I visit Singapore, everyday I see more features of highly progressive nations. I wonder when, or if, the Philippines would ever catch up with Singapore, which was behind the Philippines in the 1960s? This keeps me thinking about our scientists, why our basic problems in science persist, and the role of your Star Science. These thoughts changed my mind, and I will react to their comments.

It seems their doubts with my papers are mainly two — my language and repetition.

The adversarial tone they find in my articles could be the bluntness of my saying the truth. People say the truth hurts. I think the truth, regardless of the tone, hurts only the culprits. Many scientists I respect accept the brutal honesty of my language on serious matters. In fact, they would have it no other way.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Albert Einstein must have left a permanent mark of straightforwardness in my brain. Emerson was quoted as having said, “Be sincere or be silent. Speak the whole truth, as you see it, or do not speak at all.” And from Einstein, “If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”

Still, peoples’ attitude varies in saying or not saying something. For example, some call GMA a liar, a cheat, and a thief. Although some supporters defend her, hardly anyone questions the tone of the language. Perhaps they find it immaterial to the truth. On the other hand, why is it okay to say prostitute, penis, and vagina, but saying them in our own language is considered despicable? Is this a cultural or congenital peculiarity of Filipinos?

Lastly, most of our scientists would rather “mute their voices to avoid irritating colleagues” than speak the truth. Their silence gives rise to problems or perpetuates them. An example is the presence of non-scientist members and officers in our two national science organizations. It is the major cause of the organizations’ failure to promote S&T, which is important to our economic transformation.

Let me now go to repetitions in my published papers. Their observation is wrong. I repeat only important points — such as basic problems that stunt the growth of science in the Philippines and solutions that have worked in developed countries. Repetition of things important has never been shown as counter productive. Consider the following:

First, in advertising, a proven way to sell products is repetition. We have seen or heard this in the TV or radio. Second, preachers have been reciting John 3:16 since the time of the disciples 2000 years ago. They continue repeating it in churches.

Third, in the scientific paper, the principal result is often mentioned five times. It is usually made the TITLE of the article. Principal results are stated in the ABSTRACT. In biomedical research, most journals want the principal results and conclusions stated in the INTRODUCTION. As Robert Day quotes in How to write and publish a scientific paper, “Reading a scientific article isn’t the same as reading a detective story. We want to know from the start that the butler did it.” Principal findings are of course given in the RESULTS section. And they are explained in the DISCUSSION.

You also mentioned some scientists “do not agree that ISI pubs are the only measure of scientific productivity and S&T contribution to economic development.”

I too do not agree with that. In fact, in my first, third, and fourth papers, I pointed out that the quality of cited references is another measure of a papers quality, whether ISI-indexed or not. What I repeatedly emphasize in my papers is to use established objective measures of research or S&T performance — mainly articles in ISI-indexed journals. How could they have missed that?

My reason for objective measures is that peer review (subjective evaluation) is not appropriate for us under present conditions. Unlike in developed countries, we yet lack enough scientists to do peer judgment of research performance. This is the reason why out of our few hundred science journals, only one meets the ISI standards for coverage in its Science Citation Index Expanded, which covers over 6,500 journals worldwide.

Fast developing and developed countries have been using articles in ISI-indexed journals to measure research performance (examples in my fifth paper). Instead of relying in peer judgment, had we early on adopted ISI-indexed publications as indicators of scientific capability, we would not have the problem of nonscientists in our national science academy.

About Rep. Villafuerte’s given and promised support for science, I hope I was wrong about him. But let me repeat — the focus on more money for R&D did not work. This is not to say money is not important. The subject is discussed in my first and third papers. I suggested to fund only published proponents (as done in developed countries) and to reward authors of papers in int. journals (proven effective in some developing countries). These are reiterated in the second paper and recapped in the fifth.

Villafuerte can make a lasting contribution to improve science in the Philippines — if incentives for research proposals and publications, as recommended in my fifth paper, come as legislation.

Meanwhile, scientists of the NAST and NRCP should seriously think about internal reform. Foremost is their membership. I know this is not going to be easy. But the presence of non-scientist members and officers is a basic problem that the NAST, in particular, must address if it is to do its crucial role in our over-all S&T program.

Best regards,




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