Strengthening Agricultural Research and Development towards ASEAN Integration

Quick Facts:

Background

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 to "transform ASEAN into a single market and production base, a highly competitive economic region, a region of equitable economic development, and a region fully integrated into the global economy." The broad goal of economic integration implies cooperation in specific areas, including human resource development and a region-wide recognition of professional qualifications. One of the critical dimensions of human resource enhancement is the capacity to do research and development, not only in terms of pushing the frontiers of science and knowledge, but also as an integral part in the educational process.

In the Philippines, the workforce remains primarily agricultural, and thus continues to be of paramount concern to policymakers in terms of its contribution to the economy and food security. If the country is to meet its agricultural and broader economic development goals, and respond to emerging challenges, there is a need to increase levels of investment in agricultural R&D. Nonetheless, the country's gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of the GDP in 2013 was only 0.14. To harness itself to contribute to AEC, the Philippines needs to assess its state-of-the-art in agricultural research and development (ARD), and relate this with the ARD capabilities of other ASEAN Member States (AMS).

To achieve this goal, the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR) commissioned the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) to conduct the project Strengthening Agricultural Research and Development towards ASEAN Integration. With the goal to help strengthen the capacities of Research and Development (R&D) institutions in the Philippines, the study aimed to (1) benchmark ARD in the country vis-à-vis ARD practices in the ASEAN region, (2) assess ARD partnership among government agencies and state universities and colleges (SUCs), (3) recommend ways to strengthen staff capabilities on ARD, and (4) draw policy implications.

Methodology

The project had three major components, namely: (1) benchmarking of ARD practices in the country, (2) collaboration assessment of local R&D institutions, and (3) capability building of ARD staff. Regions were selected based on commodity focus and cross-cutting categories. Three institutions per region were selected—two SUCs and one R&D regional field office (RFO), in eight regions. Primary data were generated through online survey, complemented with data from key informant interviews and focused group discussions, and secondary data from literature review and published reports. The capacity building activities were identified from the benchmarking survey of ARD staff from SUCs and RFOs. These included a training, two fora (local and regional), and a benchmarking study visit.

Discussions and Policy Recommendations

Benchmarking of ARD Practices

The percentage of research staff with postgraduate degrees was high (81.4%). Female researchers played a significant role in ARD as shown by more women in active research service (59.2%). Nonetheless, majority from the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Regions 6, 7, 8, and 10 fell within the age range 51–60 years old. The vacuum that these senior researchers would leave in a few years could possibly weaken the research capacity of ARD in the future. The disproportionality in the number of aging senior staff and inexperienced junior staff with qualified researchers aggravate the situation. Attracting and maintaining a pool of well-qualified research staff should be a priority if the mounting challenges in Philippine ARD should be efficiently managed. Furthermore, proactive human resource development programs should be put in place through scholarships, retooling, and research grants for junior researchers.

About 60 percent of the researchers were only partially satisfied with their professional achievements, citing some workplace constraints that prevented them from reaching full potentials in research. Some were not fully supported by their research directors to attend conferences that could have provided opportunities to build research networks and update their knowledge on new research trends; some were hampered by insufficient budget or financial support.

The project-to-researcher ratio is 1.4 and across regions, the ratio ranged from 0.8 to 2.2, which are indicative of low research productivity and variability, respectively. The disparity is more apparent within regions between SUCs and RFOs. Across regions, the proportion of natural science researchers ranged from 70 to 90 percent, indicating an imbalance of the research pool that also includes those that specialize in physical and social sciences. Local ARD institutions completed research projects that are mostly in the natural sciences in the past three years, focusing on a variety of agricultural commodities. On the other hand, researches in the social and physical sciences were confined to rice research.

As recent developments in R&D require a multidisciplinary approach in addressing developmental issues, the imbalance among research disciplines should be tackled so that institutional research pools can better address developmental concerns holistically. In particular, the capacity of SUCs and LGUs to undertake research in the fields of social and physical sciences should be enhanced by increasing the pool of experts and by training existing R&D staff. Additionally, focusing research on diverse agricultural commodities would create greater impact on policy, decision-making, and technology development.

Collaboration of R&D Institutions

Researchers identified collaboration and technical backstopping as the topmost desired form of research support. Nonetheless, RFO researchers collaborate with researchers from other institutions on a very limited scale, often in response to issues encountered during implementation. On the other hand, the collaboration of SUC researchers with external researchers are only implicit preconditions to research grants and are often through non-competitive research grants from personal networks. Further collaboration is also made contingent on the availability of funds and as mandated by the donor agency.

Across institutions, about 70 percent of funds utilized for research were basic research funds and local grants and only about 10 percent were sourced externally.

RFO researchers neither receive monetary incentives nor merit from their research output, unlike their SUC counterparts, because research is considered a regular duty of an RFO researcher. A key informant said that RFO researchers often pass on a research idea to a SUC researcher with the condition that the former be involved in the research with some financial incentive. The disparity on productivity levels in R&D among institutions may be addressed through grants provision and mentoring collaboration between stronger SUCs and less productive counterparts.

Institutions must also be more proactive in seeking substantial collaboration, such as in the development of research proposals. In this manner, collaboration becomes an integral part of the research and not dependent on fund availability or donor mandate.

Capability Building of ARD Staff

The ARD staff recognized the importance of the training program, which focused on research methods and analytical techniques in physical, natural, and social sciences, but noted that the coverage is narrow and the time was not sufficient.

Presentations by local researchers during the local forums showed a relatively wide gap in the mastery of research methods and of research capabilities. The simple analytical tools used in most of the researches revealed a limitation in the level of rigor in methodology. The papers further reflected the pattern shown in the survey that most researches done were in the natural sciences. Thus, local researchers need to explore and implement more advanced methods/analytical tools available to widen their research influence to policymaking. In relation to the country's free trade commitment to the ASEAN region, local researchers should link the impact of their research undertaking not only to the development of the Philippine agriculture sector, but also towards strengthening regional trade in the ASEAN region.

At the SEA regional forum, research papers selected from the local forums were presented along with researches from other AMS (i.e., Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia). It was noticeable that the presented researches from the Philippines were focused on technology development and increasing productivity of crops and livestock, while other AMS focused on the management of climate change. Nonetheless, the presentations, quality of research, and ability of the researchers from the Philippines to answer questions showed that they are at par with their counterparts from other AMS. Equally important is that the Philippines showcased its capacity to establish different areas of collaboration with other AMS. The key challenges for the improvement of the Philippine ARD system identified in the forum includes prioritizing basic and applied research, as well as structural issues on collaboration.

While the importance of integrating ARD in the ASEAN was recognized, the issue was how to revitalize ARD in view of the ASEAN integration. There may be plenty of research findings across the ASEAN that can be shared, but the mechanisms by which these are shared is unclear.

On a regional scale, it was noted that the competitiveness of ASEAN countries on certain commodities is dependent on the extent of its government's investment. Possible areas of partnership among AMS identified during the regional forum were (1) ARD Information System; (2) research staff exchange; (3) joint projects; (4) inter-country visitation (policymakers, staff, agri-fisheries leaders/producers); and (5) regular fora on ASEAN ARD. Nonetheless, mechanisms on these partnership areas need further discussion and agreement among AMS.

Another capacity building opportunity was the institutional-level benchmarking of selected countries in the ASEAN region. The benchmarking study showed that in terms of the overall attributes (i.e., years of existence, manpower, research facilities, research program, extent of local and international collaboration, human resource development program, and research budget), there is no significant difference between the Philippines and the institutions visited in other countries. It was also noted that consortia as a collaborative approach could optimize resources through sharing expertise and research infrastructure. The consortium could also facilitate the transfer of technology and knowledge through academic exchanges.


The research team was composed of Dr. Prudenciano U. Gordoncillo (Project Leader), Dr. Imelda R. Molina (Institutional Development Specialist), Dr. Jose Nestor M. Garcia (Training Needs and Capability Building Specialist), Dr. Marc Jim M. Mariano (Research Specialist), Dr. Victor A. Rodulfo, Jr. (Research Specialist), and Arvin Jay S. Carandang (Project Assistant).

References:

Ortega, Cristina. (29 July 2017). "The ASEAN Economic Community: A work in progress." The Manila Times. Retrieved from http:// www.manilatimes.net/the-asean-economic-community-a-work-inprogress/ 341181

UNESCO. 2016. UIS. Stat. http://data.uis.unesco.org