, MARCH 8, 2007
 (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Caesar Saloma, Ph.D. - We yearn to learn from a teacher. In an ideal world, that is possible, or at least in the movies, it is not difficult to sympathize with or even adore teachers. Think of Mr. Miyagi (played by Pat Morita) in the Karate Kid or Henry Jones (acted by Harrison Ford) in the Indiana Jones series. Many of us grew up admiring these heroic characters and only a demented mind would disagree that both Miyagi-sensei and Professor Jones represent something that is noble and right in civil society. We want to emulate these characters and it is not because they symbolize immense wealth or near absolute political power Miyagi and Jones had none of these. The reason seems to be our innate recognition that teachers are invaluable in human societies they impart knowledge that allows us to understand ourselves better. Civilizations are shaped and enriched by teachers.

Teaching is a vocation that requires technical skill, selflessness and commitment. Every discipline from the basic sciences and mathematics to medicine and engineering, needs its own coterie of talented teachers in order to avoid stagnation and decline. Teachers ensure that skills are continuously refined and passed on to the next generation. They guarantee that specialized knowledge is shared and tested incessantly through time. To accomplish these difficult tasks, teachers often put the interest of their students first above their own even in the absence of a tenable material reward.

The need for competent and dedicated teachers is most dire in our graduate programs in the natural and applied sciences, mathematics and engineering. The Philippines is unable to produce a sufficient number of PhD graduates due to the lack of qualified mentors to supervise graduate students. A 2004 study published in the journal Nature reported that there is one PhD for every 3,316, 11,621 and 6,533 heads of population in Germany, Japan and US, respectively. In the Philippines where the 2007 population is estimated to be around 88 million, the total number of PhDs is likely to be below 2,000. To achieve the PhD density profile of Japan, our country needs more than 7,500 PhDs.

A PhD degree is a research degree. It is the last formal degree that could be earned in the conventional system of matriculated training. The PhD degree is awarded to a student who has contributed something original, novel and valuable to the body of scientific knowledge. The constant generation of new knowledge is strategically vital to our country because it is the fuel that drives technological innovation, which in turn allows industries to prosper in a ruthless global economy. More than 440 years after the birth of Galileo, scientific knowledge has attained such an advanced state that it is now impossible for a student to satisfy the stringent requirement of a PhD degree without the guidance of an experienced mentor.

The incapacity of our current higher education system to train technically competent scientists and engineers in significant numbers hampers the efficacy of our country in attracting a substantial amount of foreign direct investment that is crucial in creating well-paying jobs for our people. The scarcity of viable graduate programs is a major cause of the persistent migration of talented BS graduates in the sciences and engineering. The brain drain that is happening is more due to the absence of a sensible option than to the lack of love of country.

Even in advanced countries, schools and universities are not known to be among the most generous of employers in terms of salaries and benefits. And the situation is worse in an emerging economy like the Philippines. A survey published in the journal Science in November 2006 reported a US academic median salary for 2006 of $78,382 and $60,809 for male and female, respectively. The corresponding salary in the private sector is 1.34 and 1.29 times higher. In the University of the Philippines, the maximum salary of a full professor (rank 12) is P361,356 or $7374.6 (one dollar = P49) which is one order of magnitude less that his/her US counterpart. A young PhD normally in his late 20s or early 30s who is holding the rank of an assistant professor receives an annual salary of P245,184 not enough to decently support a housewife and an offspring.

It is heartening to note that the both government and the private sector are investing more seriously to build more school classrooms and to hire more teachers. Many of our countrymen believe that the Philippines must improve the quality of the science and mathematics instruction that is delivered in most elementary and high schools. And they are right. However, our national investment in science education would be futile if our country is unable to provide excellent graduate programs that will retain the best and the brightest young Filipino minds. The skillful graduates that are produced by our science high schools and colleges will only end up in the graduate programs of foreign universities. Neighboring countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan ROC have spent heavily sprucing their science and engineering departments. They are now on the lookout for talented graduate students. If the current situation with its graduate programs is not addressed effectively, investment by the Philippines in basic science education is an unintended subsidy to the higher education efforts of its wealthier neighbors.

A university is a place for higher learning. Its reputation is derived from the creative prowess of its faculty. The US has the best higher education system in the world and its universities set up endowment funds to attract and retain the best available faculty. Great professors attract talented students (and not the other way around). Together they organize into research teams that draw the serious funding attention of the private sector and government agencies. Individuals who are part of these powerhouse teams are the most likely to make excellent contributions to science, win the Nobel Prize and bring pride to a nation.

Companies and universities around the world are engaged in a relentless search for talent. Both the government and the private sector should recognize the profound implications of this global trend to the self-esteem and future prosperity of the Filipino nation. They should initiate sensible ways of celebrating and recognizing the contributions of mentors and as a result, encourage young scientists and researchers to follow their path.

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Caesar Saloma is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines. He is a professor of physics at the National Institute of Physics and presently the dean of the College of Science in UP Diliman. E-mail him at caesar.saloma@gmail.com.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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