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  • Ecuadorian science paralysed by lack of funds


[QUITO] Half of the research projects underway at the Central University of Ecuador (UCE) – the country's largest public university, with 40,000 students and 2,500 teachers – are on hold due to a lack of financial resources.

One of the 28 stalled research projects is a US$160,000 study to develop a vaccine for leishmaniasis. This mosquito-borne disease, found in tropical and subtropical areas, is endemic across 60 per cent of the country.

"We have received only 25 per cent [of the funds needed]," says William Cevallos, director of the project."We now have vaccines ready to give to patients, but we do not have the funds to take them out to communities."

Another project that has been delayed involves studying the prevalence and incidence of infections at three hospitals. The director of the research, César Ruano, says he has covered part of the cost of the studies from his own pocket.

The crisis in scientific research has been particularly severe this year because funds from a US$30 million loan from the Interamerican Development Bank, granted to develop the country's National Science and Technology Programme 1996-2002, have run out.

The country is negotiating a new US$20-million loan from the Bank, in order to implement the second phase of its science and technology programme. But the recent change of government has meant that the negotiations, which began in 2001, will have to start all over again.

The Ecuadorian Higher Education Law, in force since 1981, stipulates that 1 per cent of the government’s budget should be earmarked for university research and development. This sum represented around US$40 million in 2002.

"We have not received a penny of this," says Patricio Vargas, director of technological innovation and competitiveness at the National Council of Universities and Polytechnics (CONESUP), which groups 56 universities, 32 of which are public. "Now, as a result of so much pressure, they have budgeted US$1.2 million, although by law we should receive US$50 million."

CONESUP has 44 pending research projects, which would need US$47 million to complete. "Researchers are anxious to get going but there are no funds," Vargas says.

Ecuador's science budget for 2003 is US$2 million, a third of the amount proposed by the National Secretariat for Science and Technology (SENACYT), the country’s agency for scientific development.

This amount represents 0.03 per cent of the overall budget, while the amount allocated to science between 1995 and 2002 was 0.08 per cent.

The crisis in science is a reflection of a more general crisis affecting the country. The government's overall budget for this year is US$6.7 billion (19 per cent more than the previous year). But US$2.2 billion of that is destined to pay off the country's debt of US$14 billion.

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