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Free-speech campaigners have spoken out after a top Venezuelan physicist was stripped of his post for making a joke about government officials.

Claudio Mendoza, previously head of a computational-physics laboratory in the Caracas-based Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC), lost his position — which he had held for a decade — after joking about the government’s handling of nuclear policy in an article.

Mendoza sarcastically suggested that Venezuela’s potential as a nuclear state is not worrying because government officials fail to listen to experts and would be unable to develop nuclear technology.

Venezuela has significant reserves of uranium ore and in 2005 the government announced it would collaborate with Iran to develop a nuclear programme.

Mendoza remains a researcher in the lab, but the demotion has prompted the US-based American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists to contact Venezuelan officials. They pledged to monitor the situation and take further action if necessary.

IVIC’s director Máximo García Sucre claimed the article represented the tipping point in a series of altercations in which Mendoza has criticised the government.

Mendoza says he will not try to be reinstated and is "just basically trying to survive as a researcher".

Link to full article in Nature [available 16 April]