Being a researcher in UP Diliman (UPD) involves a series of constant adjustments and compromises, says research associates (RA) Mickai Leaño and Aiko del Rosario from the College of Science. There is always careful thinking involved in deciding what food to buy, which household bill to delay paying, or whether to go to a doctor. In these instances, Leaño and del Rosario find themselves often choosing the less costly option.
Behind the efforts of researchers to contribute to society, RAs in the university are burdened by delayed wages and a lack of benefits in their laboratories and field works. This harsh reality of their working conditions runs counter to the efforts of UP in fulfilling its mandate as a research-oriented institution while effectively ensuring the welfare of its workers.
Promoting research and development has always been one of the top priorities of UPD, which stems from the university’s mandate to serve the people. According to the UP Charter of 2008, one of its mandates as a research university is to advance basic and applied research to contribute to the dissemination and application of knowledge in the country.
Being a researcher at the university for four years now, Leaño’s current research project deals with yielding viable drugs in the future for diseases such as cancer, hypercholesterolemia, and gout through a drug discovery program. Meanwhile, del Rosario’s five years of research experience at UP led her to become more passionate about bridging the gap between the limited literature on the internal seas and oceanography of the Philippines to help promote better fishery management and preserve marine-protected areas.
Research projects like these aid the university and society at large by contributing and generating knowledge for the benefit of all. UP has consistently stood in the top 500 to top 1000 university rankings from 2017 to 2023 alongside other research-intensive universities around the world, according to Times Higher Education. This serves as a testament to how research and development can boost the university in terms of fulfilling its purpose to serve society.
However, this development must not be made at the expense of its workers, especially for a university that prides itself on the research outputs they produce.
“Isa sa mga lifeblood ng university ay ang pananaliksik … In order for us to better serve the society, we should have a research-enabling environment para sa lahat ng mga mananaliksik regardless of their status and kung saan mang field sila napapabilang,” says TJ Cipriano, one of the founding members of the Alliance of STEM Graduate Students and Workers - UPD (STEM Alliance).
Despite the vital role of researchers at the university, upholding the welfare of RAs has proven to be a challenge for UP. The slow bureaucratic processes of the university regarding the distribution of wages and lack of hazard pay for project-based personnel further widen the gap between investments for research projects and workers.
In a survey conducted by the STEM Alliance in 2020, wages were delayed by an average of four months in 2019, and waiting time increased to seven months in 2020, during the pandemic. Cipriano attributes the delay to the laggard processing of documents such as financial reports and vouchers between offices like the accounting department, the vice chancellor, and the chancellor. The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration (OVCA), meanwhile, says that problems are also because of incomplete documents and delayed remittances from funding agencies to UP.
Unlike research, extension, and professional staff who are UP contractuals and are part of the payroll system of the university, the wages and employment of RAs are provided by the research projects’ external funding agencies, such as the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Without direct contact with these agencies, RAs find themselves stuck in limbo as they struggle to forward their concerns.
In an attempt to solve the issue, the OVCA implemented the Contract of Services (COS) Payroll System for those under COS. This service has a regular payroll that runs twice a month for workers provided that they have submitted complete documents needed for wage distribution. However, only COS workers funded by the UPD Internal Operating Budget are eligible to receive the service, leaving RAs of externally-funded projects left to deal with their own salary delays.
At times, principal investigators and project heads shell out money from their own pockets or savings from the projects. Aside from salaries, the slow processing of documents also delays the progress of research, as laboratory materials or equipment cannot be procured.
"Sa lab namin ngayon, halos hindi na talaga pumapasok yung mga tao kasi kahit gusto mo pumasok, wala namang materials para magtrabaho ka. Tapos yung iba, naghahanap na rin ng pwedeng ipang part-time job. Nakakapanlumo na ganito yung nararanasan ng mga STEM workers sa Pilipinas,” shares Leaño.
RAs are forced to borrow money or find side hustles to make ends meet. Del Rosario started doing consultations in 2021 as a subcontractor for projects in checking the environmental parameters asked by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and also accepted crochet commissions. Leaño, meanwhile, tutored students in chemistry last year for extra income.
Coupled with the absence of benefits and compensations considering the hazardous nature of the work of researchers, RAs are anxious about possible increases in expenses. This includes paying for medical bills and check-ups that are sometimes included in the documents that they have to submit for project application. This, on top of their responsibility to pay their bills at home and support their families.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, Leaño and del Rosario have struggled with the same issues on salary delays, indicating an evident systemic problem in the university.
For UP to achieve its goals of developing a research university, its future decisions concerning the RAs must uphold the welfare of its researchers.
As the new Chancellor, Edgardo Vistan’s future decisions will become vital in developing more solutions for the university’s workers. This involves engaging in continuous dialogue with Vistan in order to provide better policy implementations, and optimizing the services of the newly-established Support for Research Administration from Fidel Nemenzo’s term, says the STEM Alliance.
In the short run, the group proposed the establishment of a bridging fund that will cover the delays in the salaries of RAs across all institutes. This becomes a way to compensate for the delayed remittances of external-funding agencies through the allotment of the university’s budget for this fund. The STEM Alliance also urges the university to review and apply RA 8439, or the Magna Carta for Scientists, to ensure the hazard pay of all researchers on the campus. Currently, only DOST-conferred scientists under the Scientific Career System are entitled to receive such benefits in the university.
But more importantly, filling and creating more permanent items for researchers would ensure their employment and benefits. “Nagta-thrive ang university when it comes to research and it’s because of its science workers and RAs. Kaya kung wala tayong mga items for researchers that will provide security of tenure for them, talagang hindi natin mare-reach yung fullest potential ng university,” said Cipriano.
As issues plaguing researchers persist and with little visible effort from the university to resolve problems, RAs contemplate staying in the university. Del Rosario is compelled to stay for at least two years due to the nature of her research, but Leaño mulls going back to studying next year.
Unless the university prioritizes the welfare of its workers, researchers like Leaño and del Rosario will soon reach a point where the next adjustment they will make is to leave UP. ●
Nov 27, 2023
“Violence is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old.”
Nov 16, 2023
UP Diliman’s campus publications are running on deficit, calling for a reexamination of what they face and what they fight for.