"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdown, Pork Barrel, and Science?

Most websites belonging to the US Federal Government, including those of the National Science Foundation, are unavailable until further notice. In the Philippines, pork barrel funding remains the pressing issue. It is disheartening to see science entangled in a disarray in politics. Sadly, the bad news keeps piling up. Two commissioners, Nona Ricafort and Nenalyn Defensor, and one director, Carmina Alonzo of the Philippines Commission on Higher Education (CHED) have recently withdrawn their signatures in all resolutions passed by the commission with regard to the Philippine-California Advance Research Institute (PCARI). Below, PCARI is mentioned in a newsletter from the College of Engineering at Berkeley.

Above image captured from
Innovations, Research & News from Berkeley Engineering
Volume 7, Issue 2, March 2013
Seeing the message from the Dean of the College of Engineering certainly brings optimism. In a Yahoo! discussion group that includes Filipino-American scientists, PCARI was in fact met with jubilation. One member wrote, "Looks like the Philippine gov't is willing to spend USD 40M/year for 5 years! Wow!" Philippine senator Ed Angara also lauded the funding of the project.

However, the recent news articles from the Manila Standard relating that PCARI is "anomalous" are extremely disconcerting. 40 million US dollars per year for 5 years amount to 200 million US dollars. That is about 10 billion pesos. This is indeed a considerable amount of money especially for a poor country like the Philippines. From the discussion group, PCARI was presented as a project "initiated and mediated" by Dado Banatao. There is a copy of PCARI's executive summary proposal submitted to Philippines' secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, Florencio Abad. It includes the following proposed budget:

Above table captured from
Philippines-California Advanced Research Institutes
Executive Summary Proposal 
At least, it is nice to see that the numbers match. In one of the Manila Standard news articles, "Abad’s ‘beautiful project’ moves Ched exec to quit" (October 3, 2013, article by Christine F. Herrera), Secretary Abad insisted that "the project was not worth P10 billion but P1.9 billion". To this remark, Ricafort said "the annual allocation for the project, which begins this year, amounts to P2 billion or a total of P10 billion in five years without a counterpart fund from UC Berkeley". The fact that Abad talks in terms of annual funding while Ricafort focuses on the total amount is perhaps simply a "spin". The last part of Ricafort's statement, however, should not be ignored. This is not simply semantics, the phrase "without a counterpart fund from UC Berkeley" needs to be taken seriously.

In the summary proposal by Banatao, the following phrase is found in describing the proposed project:
Our initial estimate of the core funding profile in total is US$205 million over five years, with a portion spent in the Philippines as appropriate to the costs and needs to support the programs there. The Institute Directors and the PCARI board will manage funding for the mirror sites, at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco. Funds for the Institute for Information Infrastructure Development will be spent on participating faculty and activities primarily in the College of Engineering and CITRIS Berkeley and the funds for the Institute for Healthcare Innovation and Translational Medicine will be spent on participating faculty and activities primarily at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley. At this time, the annual funding is expected to be divided equally between the two institutes.
This brings me back to the annoying predicament of not being able to view websites of the National Science Foundation. It is useful to contrast the above with existing policies of a US government agency on programs that are of internationally collaborative nature. Fortunately, there are other websites that describe strategies on how to secure such kind of funding from US agencies. These strategies help illustrate policies taken by US agencies with regard to funding research outside the US. One example is an article from the Science journal, "GrantDoctor Special Edition: Funding International Research Collaborations". These are the relevant excerpts:

For National Institutes of Health funding
...If you do choose to include a foreign component in your proposal, note the following: Facilities and administration for the foreign component of any grant may not exceed 8% of the foreign budget, less equipment. This, in NIH's judgment, is all that's needed to meet the extra costs of compliance with NIH and Department of Health and Human Services requirements...
For National Science Foundation funding
In general, NSF follows the "sender-side-pays" model: When U.S. scientists go abroad, NSF pays the way. When, say, France sends a collaborator to the United States, France pays. This approach is fine when the partner is France, or some other affluent country, but it works less well when research partners are in developing countries. So--listen up; this is a key point--NSF program officers have some discretion in funding elements of a project that, in the words of Libby Lyons of OISE, "are deemed essential to the successful outcome of the project."

She's making sense; let's keep listening: "Thus, if there is local scientific expertise that is essential to include, a program officer may decide that some consultancy may be appropriate for the foreign scientist. Likewise, if having a foreign student is deemed essential to the project, for example, because s/he speaks the local language or can be in the field all year, a program officer could [provide] some support." Some expenses--tuition at foreign institutions, large amounts of salary for foreign investigators, large-scale foreign training activities--lie well outside NSF's mandate. But the point here is that if they are essential, some foreign expenses can be paid by NSF.
PCARI clearly intends to use Philippine funds to support research activity in terms of personnel and infrastructure in the two California institutes. Thus, if tables are turned, PCARI funding will clearly go against the above funding policies. NSF and NIH funds are not meant to support foreign personnel and institutions. These policies are obviously in place because of national interests. NSF and NIH funds cannot be used to support graduate students doing research in the Philippines, unless such graduate students are American citizens. NSF and NIH funds cannot be used to support infrastructure or facilities in the Philippines. On the other hand, with PCARI, Philippine funds are intended to support personnel and infrastructure in the US laboratories. The annual amount of 3 million US dollars alone for administration and collaboration is already questionable. An NSF project is usually funded at about 100K dollars per year. The administrative portion of the fund therefore costs as much as 30 research projects in the US.

Unfortunately, this seems to be not the only questionable part of the deal. The following excerpt from the Manila Standard article, "2 Ched execs quit, slam Abad for P10b anomaly" by Christine Herrera, fuels additional concern:
Ricafort and Alonzo said the US did not have counterpart funds and all inventions and discoveries to be made by the research team in the US would carry patents and intellectual property rights according to US laws with the Philippine government not having to own the patents.
PCARI sound like the Philippines is the one providing aid to the United States. Lastly, one more important question to ask is why an agency like the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) is involved in a transaction like this. Does CHED have the authority and expertise to evaluate and approve a program like PCARI? A paragraph from months ago is definitely refueling disdain...
The Commission on Higher Education on Saturday appealed to politicians not to exploit the suicide case of a University of the Philippines Manila student on Friday supposedly because she could not afford to pay tuition. (GMA News, 16 March 2013)

1 comment: