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[BOGOTÁ] The Colombian government's decision on how to spend royalties from the mining sector that were promised to science has stirred a debate among the country's scientists.

Last year, Colombian scientists welcomed the adoption of legislation to invest ten per cent of mining royalties in science, technology and innovation (see Colombia to invest US$500 million extra a year in STI, in Spanish).

But now, some scientists are questioning the government's decision to funnel large parts of the first year's royalties, approximately US$450 million, to regions with little research infrastructure — as well as to regions considered hotbeds of crime.

To determine the amount of money going to each of the 32 regions, the government used formulae based on indicators such as population, poverty and unemployment.

This means that undeveloped regions may get a large portion of the funding, even if there is relatively little research infrastructure there. One such region is Córdoba, which is better known for its strong cattle ranching tradition, and for being a stronghold of paramilitaries and criminal gangs, than for science — yet will receive around seven per cent of the royalties.

According to data from the Colombian Observatory of Science and Technology, in 2010 there were only 41 research groups in Cordoba compared with 194 in Santander, a region which will get only half as much money.

Hernán Jaramillo, dean of economics at Our Lady of the Rosary University, in Bogotá, told SciDev.Net that there was a risk that such investments would not be efficient because it may take a long time to produce scientific results in those regions.

The assumption that the answers to the problems that plague certain regions lie in those regions themselves may not be true, according to Jaramillo. For example, he said, although malaria is endemic in rural areas like Chocó and along the Caribbean coast, the scientific infrastructure to study malaria is in urban centres, such as Cali and Medellín.

But Jaime Restrepo Cuartas, director of the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias), told SciDev.Net that "the criterion here was to regionalise the science".

"The idea is to have a more balanced scientific development in the regions, allowing the least developed ones to become more competitive."

Restrepo said he understood that researchers from major universities would like to continue receiving most of the resources. But he added: "I think this distribution will allow regions like Córdoba to become stronger in human capital and technology development".