[TUNIS] Tunisian scientists are demanding that the country's post-revolution constitution includes a clause relating to support for scientific research, as well as a dedicated science budget.
These demands follow a significant drop in science funding since the uprising of 2011 that saw a regime change in the country.
Last month (11 May) the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) raised the budget for scientific research by ten per cent, to a total of €55 million (US$67.8 million).
This represents about 0.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). But it is less than half of the budget allocated for science prior to the revolution, when science funding represented about 1.25 per cent of GDP.
Meanwhile, Tunisia's science community has called for at least two per cent of GDP to be allocated to scientific research.
Researchers from the Tunisian Association for Research Development and Innovation (TARDI) staged a protest in April in front of the NCA, as part of their initiative to demand a separate constitutional clause to regulate scientific research and guarantee appropriate budget levels.
"Establishing a concrete and credible scientific research system is necessary to create wealth and job opportunities," Rached Kahlani, secretary-general of TARDI, told SciDev.Net.
"TARDI asked the NCA to devote a clause in the new constitution to maintaining the importance of scientific research in the country, and to allocate at least two per cent of GDP for science," he added.
Rapporteur-general of the constitution and NCA member, Habib Khedher, told SciDev.Net: "Scientific research is a priority in the new Tunisia, and we will have a constitutional article to organise it".
He added that in the coming months, the NCA would hold a general meeting with the minister of scientific research to discuss the status of science and a reference to the needs of researchers and scientists within the constitution.
However, Khedher also added that the constitution could not allocate a precise percentage of the country's GDP to scientific research, as such a mechanism would require altering the constitution whenever this percentage changed.
Moncef Ben Salem, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told SciDev.Net that the reduction in science funding since the revolution had resulted from: "large challenges and complicated issues facing the government after the uprising, including unemployment, local development needs, and other urgent issues."
Bechir Hamrouni, a researcher at El Khawarizmi Calculus Centre, said that a reduction in the budget "would certainly reduce the number of funded research projects during the year".
"We still enjoy appropriate research infrastructure, but with time, if the budget doesn't increase, our capacity for scientific research will decrease dramatically," he said.
However, Ben Salem also highlighted that his ministry is now working to reform the system of scientific research in the country, in collaboration with Tunisian scientists abroad, and international partners, in particular UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
According to Ben Salem, the recent budgetary increases are an important part of this effort, and will be used specifically to fund scientific research directed to the priorities of development and the transfer of new technologies.