[OPINION] We need to professionalize biology in the Philippines

Rey Donne S. Papa
'The lack of recognition of biology as a valid career option prevents biology graduates from being appreciated and recognized for their contributions'

The first 4 months of the year 2020 saw raging forest fires in Australia, the eruption of a volcano (Taal Volcano) located in the middle of a caldera lake (Lake Taal), a locust infestation in parts of Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic which traces its origins to bat and/or pangolin consumption in China, and turquoise-blue waters returning to Manila Bay during the first few weeks of the “enhanced community quarantine.” These of course, came at the heels of a water crisis in Metro Manila, the declaration of Sardinella tawilis as an endangered species last year, and the continued negative impacts of climate change.

All these scenarios have brought challenges that have affected all our lives. Social media has increased public interest in these phenomena but have likewise led to many misinterpretations and “fake news.” One thing shared by all these events is that they are best understood by persons who have degrees and training in biology. They would be among the most knowledgeable members of the population who would be able to understand, explain, offer advice, and have the skills to help study, analyze, and even mitigate the negative impacts of such catastrophic events. Unfortunately, the lack of recognition of biology as a valid career option prevents biology graduates from being appreciated and recognized for their contributions. (READ: Recipe for disaster? U.P. scientists slam release of invasive ‘anti-dengue’ species)

Studying biology is so much more than the usual high school biology activities such as dissecting frogs or identifying the parts of a flower. Biology is an extremely multi-faceted discipline, from the molecular level all the way to the entire biosphere. The recommended CHED curriculum in biology (CHED CMO 49 s. 2017) provides opportunities to learn basic and applied concepts in taxonomy and systematics, cell and molecular biology, evolutionary biology, genetics, developmental biology, microbiology, and physiology. These are then further strengthened by specialization courses such as bioinformatics, industrial biotechnology, marine biology, conservation biology, medical microbiology, histology and histopathology, parasitology, and immunology, among others. These options largely depend on the chosen specialization track, or major, of the student. A B.Sc. Biology graduate would therefore be knowledgeable in the use of microscopic techniques, DNA isolation, and analysis (which is extremely important in determining positive COVID-19 cases using a PCR machine), microbiological assays, testing on animal models, mapping, statistical analyses, environmental monitoring, and identification of organisms to species level. (READ: Top PH biologist: Tech, data help us understand species better)

Unfortunately, an undergraduate degree in biology, which is offered by 202 Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) in the Philippines (Raymundo et al., 2017) is widely perceived as a dead-end degree. Many students (and even their parents) usually dread career options in biology if in case one decides not to pursue a medical career. Oftentimes, graduates of B.Sc. Biology who do not proceed to medical school end up underemployed – unable to practice whatever tangible knowledge or skills they obtained from their undergraduate studies.

It is not surprising to find B.Sc. Biology graduates engaged in entry-level careers in Business Process Outsourcing (i.e. call centers), sales, real estate, and marketing. Others resort to taking a second baccalaureate degree which offers better career prospects, especially abroad, such as nursing or physical therapy. This is because earning a decent living as a biology graduate means taking additional graduate degrees yet eventually competing for a limited number of available job opportunities. Unfortunately, this scenario wastes 4 years of hard toil, spent studying the rigors of biology courses, as well as the research training they obtained while working on their undergraduate thesis. (READ: VIRAL: UP student studying biology while in rally)

I would like to attribute the anxiety of many students over potential career prospects in biology to factors such as 1) the lack of recognition of biology as a valid profession in the Philippines; 2) the competition with, and preference for, graduates of other degrees who have government licensure examinations (medical technologists, chemists, fisheries graduates, agriculturists, foresters, etc.); 3) the low regard for research, innovation, and development among Philippine-based industries and corporations; and 4) the limited job opportunities in academia given the research culture in many higher educational institutions.

In this article, I hope to offer suggestions to address the first two of the 4 factors listed above. The last two factors, though equally important, are not unique to biology and covers other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Furthermore, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has been continuously coming up with initiatives that have helped ease this problem, such as 1) providing scholarship opportunities for graduate degrees in STEM (DOST-SEI, 2020); 2) raising compensation packages for research staff (DOST, 2019); and 3) strengthening the Scientific Career System for scientists in public service (NAST, 2020). Though far from perfect, this shows how the DOST has been striving to champion the plight of those engaged in S&T careers.    

At present, initiatives to professionalize a discipline in biological sciences is limited to microbiology. The Philippine Academy of Microbiology (PAM) offers a certification examination for Registered Microbiologists. The PAM aims to take this to the next level, by soliciting support for a Microbiology Bill in the Philippine legislature (Chipeco, 2019). Once approved, this would transform the exam into a Professional Regulations Commission (PRC) board examination, thus giving microbiologists proper government recognition. This may be used as a benchmark for professionalizing biologists.

Since biologists are needed in many other disciplines apart from microbiology-related professions, the entire discipline needs to undergo proper certification as well. This will enable biologists to have a distinct identity compared to other related professions, which have the unique advantage of filling in vacant positions simply because they have professional board examinations even though these tasks may be best performed by a biologist. To give one possible scenario, a job opening intended for a molecular biologist may be easily filled up by a licensed medical technologist because biology graduates, even though they are obviously qualified to perform the tasks of a molecular biologist, do not hold a government-issued professional license.

However, given the limited job opportunities and the need for further specializations in graduate school, any attempt to come up with a professional certification examination for biologists must specify that a master’s degree in biology be the minimum requirement to qualify for the exam, following the example of the Psychology Law (R.A. 10029) for Registered Psychologists. This would ensure that the candidate has taken more than the basic course requirements specified in the undergraduate curriculum and has been exposed to a certain field of specialization in graduate school which makes them more prepared to engage in a highly specialized career. Given how graduate students are encouraged to publish in valid, peer-reviewed journals as part of their graduate training, requiring the completion of a masters degree prior to taking the certification examination ensures that anyone who qualifies as a professional biologist has undergone adequate research training, which is among the strengths of anyone who has pursued advanced degrees in biology. 

Another option is to empower biology associations or societies involved in different disciplines to maintain a certain level of quality among their members by providing professional certification programs in various subspecialties or disciplines. This is not without precedent. In Canada, organizations such as the Alberta Society of Professional Biologists (ASPB) and the Association of Professional Biology (APB) in British Columbia regulates and ensures the qualifications of those who wish to practice biology as a profession in their respective federal states. Professional certifications also exist for highly specialized disciplines such as wildlife biology and fisheries biology.

In the Philippines, this means that for us to jumpstart any attempt to professionalize biology, the currently existing “professional” societies in various fields of biology must provide professional certificate programs in their respective disciplines. They should also come together and form an umbrella organization or academy that would spearhead reaching out to the national government and employers to recognize such professional certifications issued by their respective societies in choosing candidates for a certain position. At present, there are different professional societies for biochemistry and molecular biology (PSBMB), cell biology (PSCB), developmental biology (PSDB), biology teachers (BIOTA Philippines), systematic biologists (ASBP), freshwater sciences (PSFS), and biodiversity and conservation (BCSP), to name a few. None of these organizations offer professional certificate programs for their members, save perhaps for the usual conference, training course, or seminar-workshop that they offer on an annual basis.  

If we would be able to come up with a united front, we can be assured that we will be able to tap into this rich resource of potential contributors to help improve our awareness and understanding of the natural world, which, given this state of the “new normal,” should be integral components of our workforce – the biologists. – Rappler.com

Rey Donne S. Papa holds a PhD Biological Sciences degree from the University of Santo Tomas (UST), where he also holds the rank of Professor, teaching zoology and ecology courses in the UST Department of Biological Sciences. He is currently serving as the Dean of the UST College of Science and is the Program Lead for the Natural Sciences in the UST Graduate School. He is also the President of the Association of Systematic Biologists of the Philippines and the Vice President of the Philippine Society for Freshwater Science. Dr Papa is a freshwater biologist with 58 peer-reviewed international and national publications in the field to date. He may be reached through rspapa@ust.edu.ph.