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  • Political turmoil in Paraguay threatens science funding

[MONTEVIDEO] Paraguay's engagement in regional research projects, and the substantial financial support that these projects provide to the country's scientists, have been jeopardised by its suspension last week (26 June) from two regional political and economic blocs.

Mercosur and the intergovernmental Union of South American Nations (Unasur) suspended Paraguay following the impeachment by the country's Congress President Fernando Lugo, last month (22 June), over his handling of recent clashes between farmers and police, during which at least 17 people were killed.

Regional leaders accused Paraguay of removing a democratically elected leader, and quickly suspended the country from the two blocs.

Both Mercosur and Unasur have played an important role in boosting science in Paraguay, through regional collaborative projects with neighbouring countries, such as various biotechnology research programmes and the Mercosur Award in Science and Technology.

A senior Paraguayan government official told SciDev.Net that Mercosur's structural convergence fund (FOCEM), which is aimed at smaller economies in the region, had contributed US$3.7 million per year to science in Paraguay — amounting to around one third of the country's science and technology budget.

The official, who did not wish to be named, said that Paraguay's suspension will also affect scientific cooperation and exchange programmes with other member states, such as Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

For example, as a direct consequence of the suspension, Ecuador has cancelled a training course for Paraguayan researchers, taught by Ecuadorian researchers.

"The tickets and travel expenses for these professionals were already paid by CONACYT [Paraguay's National Council for Science and Technology], but the Ecuadorian government has not granted permission for the participants to travel to Paraguay," the official said.

He also said if Paraguay was to benefit from regional initiatives, such as Mercosur's biomedicine research network, and in joint initiatives with other regional blocs — for example, the biotechnology platform BIOTECSUR, a joint project of Mercosur and the European Union —  it needed to be actively involved through its membership in the bloc.

Its suspension now puts its inclusion at risk.

Already, the repercussions of the suspension are being felt. According to the official, "Paraguay will no longer participate" in a Mercosur framework programme for science and technology being currently  considered by the organisation's Specialized Meeting on Science and Technology (RECYT) — and its inclusion in other technology platforms is also threatened.

A Paraguayan government science advisor, who also did not wish to be named, said that the country would also feel the negative impact, "because it may not participate in current science policy discussions and may eventually be excluded from strategies implemented in the region".

"The development of science and technology projects takes at least three years, so if Paraguay is excluded from projects in preparation or under negotiation, it will inevitably be affected," said the source.

"Every researcher in Paraguay is concerned, and we are worried about the regional integration of science and technology," he added.

But the impact on the day-to-day life of researchers may not be very high, according to Antonio L. Cubilla, emeritus professor of pathology at the National University of Asunción and director of the Pathology and Research Institute in Asunción, Paraguay.

This was because science was already in a difficult position, Cubilla told SciDev.Net, and participation in international projects was dependent on the efforts of individuals striving against a backdrop of poor governance.

"Paraguay only has only 200 world class researchers, and another 600 who publish in journals of only minimal relevance," he said.

He added that the country lacked funds or an environment conducive to promoting research, and had struggled to obtain funds from foreign organisations or to forge links with neighbouring countries.

According to the government science advisor, however, membership in Mercosur has helped Paraguay reduce "inequality in science and technology" in the region.

He expressed a hope that despite the suspension, "most of the science projects under way within Mercosur and Unasur will remain".