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  • Colombian science heads for a shake-up


[BOGOTA] Colombia is proposing broad reforms to the way that scientific research is supported, with the goal of creating new administrative arrangements that, it hopes, will better reflect the development of scientific activity in the country over recent years.

But even scientists who support the reforms say that the main challenges should be to ensure that the changes being proposed are implemented effectively — and that a higher priority should be given to ensuring that science is adequately funded.

The reforms take the form of proposed modifications to a law governing Colombia's science and technology system that was passed in 1990, known as Law 29. This sets out broad principles of how the government's support of science should be organised, and how science and technology should be funded, promoted and communicated to the public.

There is now a widespread feeling, however, that the country needs a new law that reflects the way Colombian science has changed in the years since Law 29 was passed.

For example, the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology (Colciencias), whose main activity in the past was to fund individual university-based researchers, is becoming more engaged in organising research efforts through its support for research groups and centres.

The government would now like to see the National Council for Science and Technology, which currently co-ordinates support for science and technology and acts as the chief advisor on such issues to the government, given more power in decision-making and to reflect a wide range of views on how science should be supported.

To this end, it suggests that the council should change its composition to include more external members; at present, they all come from government departments. It also wants the science and technology budget to be more efficiently organised and made larger and more sustainable through committed input from the private sector.

Maria del Rosario Guerra, the director of Colciencias, also wants to see a new research fund set up — she has proposed spending US$1.7 million to strengthen six centres of research excellence over the next five years — as well as a more important role for science and technology in regional development, and greater efforts to improve the public understanding of science.

Carlos Corredor, a scientist from Universidad Pontificia Javeriana, and member of the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC) board and the Colombian Academy of Science, says that he agrees on the importance of changing some of Law 29's articles.

But he says that it is more important "to ensure that the law is followed because it is one of the best written worldwide". He adds that the problem with the current law remains restricted to principle, and "has not been implemented properly".

Government officials share this feeling. But they are unhappy with some proposals for change that are being proposed by members of the Congress. For example, Congressman Efrain Cepeda wants all proposals for research projects — even those originating in other government departments, such as the environment or health ministries — to be handled by Colciencias.

Cepeda's proposal would result in a strong centralisation of funds spent on science and technology. Guerra disagrees with Cepeda's proposed reforms, which she describes as "incongruous and unfeasible".

Others say that funding should be given more explicit attention in the new law. Eduardo Posada, president of the ACAC says that the country needs a new law that reflects the way Colombian science has changed in the years since Law 29 was passed. However, he believes the adequate funding of science should now be made a priority, suggesting that this could be done by amending the relevant articles of the current law.

Posada's comments come at a time when funding for science is under increasing pressure. Earlier this month, for example, the Colombian government cut the budget for the nine national academies, including the National Academy of Medicine and the Colombian Academy of Science, by 15.6 per cent. Representatives of the academies say that the cuts would affect the academies' publishing schedules and the acquisition of materials for their libraries.

"We received this information after our general assembly had decided how to invest our annual funding from the government," Zoilo Cuellar, president of the Academy of Medicine, told Scidev.Net. "We will have to adjust to the new budget, and that means that the educational component of the academies will suffer."

Given the urgency both of the scientific reforms and of addressing the funding problems, many Colombian scientists are upset that the parliamentary debate on the government's proposals has been cancelled twice over the past two months.

The first parliamentary debate, which had been due to be broadcast on live television in June ended prematurely after just one hour because the camera crew was needed to cover another session.

The scientific community received an apology, and the debate was re-scheduled for 15 July. But this was also cancelled with only a few days' notice. No new date for the delayed debate has been set.

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