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[BOGOTA] Microsoft's research arm has signed an agreement with the Colombian government to boost the use of information technologies in science research in the hope of triggering new scientific activity.

Under the agreement, signed this month (1 July) by Microsoft Research and the Colombian Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias), Colombian research centres will receive cheap licensing for Microsoft software and graduate students will be offered internships at any of the six Microsoft Research centres worldwide.

Microsoft Research will also get involved in the establishment of a bioinformatics research centre in Colombia, an initiative started by the government to classify information about the country's biodiversity with a view to becoming a global centre.

Colciencias is contributing US$400,000 to the centre and the Ministry of Communications is contributing US$1.2 million. Microsoft Research did not disclose its contribution.

Microsoft Research — which controls an annual global budget of US$6 billion — has agreements with various developing countries to help them use technology in ways specific to their needs. Colombia is the fourth Latin American country, after Brazil, Chile and Mexico, to enter into such an agreement.

Carlos Vasquez, national technology officer at Microsoft Colombia, told SciDev.Net that the talent, attitude and persistence of Colombian researchers impressed Microsoft Research representatives when they visited in 2007 and 2008.

The bioinformatics research centre is a good example of an alliance between the government, the scientific community and the private sector, says Vasquez.

"What we are looking for is not only to build capacity and infrastructure but to position Colombia as the place where processing biodiversity information is done efficiently," he says.

Colciencias' director, Francisco Miranda, said in a press release that the agreement will become a leading scientific initiative in the country because it opens up many opportunities for the development of a science and technology culture in Colombia.

Other parts of the agreement include grants for Colombian researchers, the organisation of meetings and conferences, and bringing high profile speakers to the country.

Microsoft Research and Colciencias will also design free programs to involve the general public in astronomy such as Worldwide Telescope, which enables computers to function as a virtual telescope.