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A reform of a Venezuelan science law has enabled the government to raise more than US$730 million to fund government-approved research projects in 2011 — nine times more than in 2010.

But the law remains controversial, with critics claiming that it gives the government excessive control of research programmes and will lead to funds being squeezed for areas of basic and social science that do not meet the governent's priorities.

The original law, which came into force five years ago, ordered large companies in Venezuela to contribute between 0.5 and two per cent of their annual income to science, technology and innovation (STI) projects.

Companies could choose to give money to STI projects in universities, research centres, and public or private institutions, or to channel the funds into their own in-house programmes. However, the government complained in 2010 that most of the money was staying within the companies — and that only a fraction was reaching external projects.

The government therefore modified the law, requiring companies to pay the tax directly to the ministry, which would then allocate the funding.

The move was highly controversial at the time, with some researchers criticising the government for tightening control over science.

The government is now claiming that the reform has paid off in terms of boosting the public funding of research.

Guillermo Barreto, Venezuela's deputy minister for scientific development, said in remarks broadcast by the media earlier this month (20 January) that it had enabled the country to finance 750 STI projects in 2011, compared with only 60 in 2010.

Rita Añez, president of the Venezuelan Association of University Rectors, confirmed that a growing number of projects at the country's National Experimental Polytechnic University — which she leads — were receiving funding.

"Traditionally, less than ten per cent of our professors and researchers have received funds from the government," she said, adding that the figure had since doubled. However Añez said that, to examine the reform's overall impact, the exact amount of money received by universities — which had not be involved in discussions on the reform — needed to be assessed.

Critics remain sceptical of the impact of the reform. Marisol Aguilera, president of the Venezuelan Association for the Advancement of Science, told SciDev.Net that the increased number of projects receiving public funding was no guarantee that the country's science and technology sector will be strengthened.

"Universities and research centres are receiving funding only for the development of certain projects in priority areas defined by the government," Aguilera said. "The new allocation of resources has not favoured research in basic and social sciences."

The priority areas are food security, health, environment, telecommunications, education, politics and society, and security and defence.

The reform has given the government exclusive management of resources for research, according to Aguilera. "It has broken the interaction between researchers and businesses."