20 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Critics raise alarm bells over basic science funding

Chilean universities have spoken out against a high-level proposal that the country’s primary research funding agency be moved to the economy ministry.

The misgivings were sparked by a suggestion last month from Economy Minister Pablo Longueira that the National Commission for Science and Technology Research (Conycit) should be in his department and no longer in the Education Ministry, where it has been housed since its creation in 1967.

“It is very important that Conicyt is based in Economy and that all of Chile’s public investment in research and development has a connection to areas of productivity,” he stated.

University and scientific bodies, rectors of leading universities and researchers have publicly rejected his proposal. The Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities said in a statement that Conicyt’s relocation “would harm scientific progress, researcher training and its connection [to] the higher education sector”.

Universities carry out over 90% of the country’s research, which is mainly financed by Conicyt’s competitive funds.

“In the event that it is relocated, applied sciences will grow in importance, to the detriment of basic sciences,” said Antofagasta University Rector Luis Alberto Loyola, in a press release.

Many academics and students are involved in the kinds of disciplines that possess little direct bearing on the economy. “Areas such as the humanities, social sciences, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy or the arts, which Conicyt funds today, might be downsized if the focus shifts to disciplines that provide a short-term return on investment,” Sergio Lavandero, vice-rector of research at Universidad de Chile, told University World News.

Lavandero said such a move would be shortsighted, as it would prove impossible to predict which research areas would yield practical results. “Who would have thought 30 years ago that molecular biology would sustain the health of our salmon industry or that paternity suits would be decided today with DNA finger-printing?”

He has joined the growing ranks of those calling for a national science and technology policy, with a specialised ministry to run it. Without a policy, he says, decisions will continue to be at the mercy of each incoming government.

“If Chile wants to become a developed country, it must set up a science, technology and innovation ministry and raise its R&D spending substantially,” Juan Asenjo, a chemical engineer at the University of Chile and president of the Chilean Academy of Sciences, told University World News.

Asenjo cited the example of Brazil, which has a dedicated ministry and spends 1.2% of gross national product on R&D, compared to Chile’s 0.4%.

Asenjo hopes that the uproar raised by Longueira’s statement will force him to retract his steps regarding Conicyt’s relocation. He is not very sanguine, however, about his call for the creation of a ministry.

“Maybe Chile is happy with being an R&D midget,” he quipped.
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