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The two-month nationwide protest strike against the Venezuelan government, and resulting loss of national revenue due to decreased oil production, have prompted an 11 per cent reduction in the country’s 2003 science research budget.

The budget cut, announced at the end of last month, will not be applied evenly across all research institutes, according to Yadira Córdova, acting minister of science and technology. “We have asked the research organisations for an internal review so that they can adjust in a way that does not affect their essential projects,” says Córdova.

Córdova admits, however, that the cutbacks will have immediate repercussions on the country’s 58 research centres and approximately 4,000 scientists. For example, projects that are about to start will be postponed until the second semester of this year, or possibly next year, she says.

Researchers working on projects already in progress will also need to adopt immediate austerity measures so that their funds survive increasing inflation. “The crisis is also forcing us to review many things internally, to coordinate more, and to tailor and concentrate our efforts towards more strategic areas,” she says.

“Our efficiency will increase,” agrees Luis Hernández, director of the Department of Behavioral Physiology at the University of the Andes in Mérida. Hernández and other scientists in his laboratory — along with many researchers in the country — have not stopped working, despite a strike that has lead to the closure of many public and private educational institutions.

The economic fallout from the strike is already looming, and is certain to play out over the next several months. For example, over the last year, the currency devalued by over 100 per cent, and the government recently decreed foreign currency exchange controls.

Younger scientists who are applying for funds for new projects or scholarships will be particularly affected by the crisis, comments Oscar Noya, Director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas.

Similarly, scientists have reported delays in receiving salary and project funds (although Ministry officials recently assured the scientific community that this problem won't persist). Despite these financial difficulties, many Venezuelan scientists — already accustomed to slow delivery of equipment and supplies — say they have not yet experienced any significant shortages.

Other problems related to the crisis, such as severe gasoline shortages, have been inconveniences — but not obstacles — to scientists. “We form car pools. And when there are no cars with gasoline, we walk, we take the bus, or do whatever we can,” says Raúl Padrón, director of the structural biology research center at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research in Caracas.

Padrón says that most of the scientists in his institution agreed to adopt a non-political stance and to continue their research after the strike began at the beginning of December last year. “We don’t have the luxury — with the international support that we receive — to waste our time with [a strike],” he explains.

© SciDev.Net 2003
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