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[SANTIAGO] Chilean investment in research and development (R&D) will reach 1-1.2 per cent of the country's gross domestic product by March 2006, according to a pledge made by president Ricardo Lagos.

The pledge was made on 21 May in Lagos's annual statement of government achievements and plans.

When Lagos assumed his six-year presidency in March 2000, investment in R&D was 0.56 per cent of Chile's GDP. It now stands at 0.7 per cent.

The president said the private sector had an increasingly important role to play in funding research and development.

"By 2010 Chile must reach an investment of at least 1.5 per cent of GDP in research and development," he said. "Half of that should come from the private sector."

At the moment, the private sector provides 28 per cent of national R&D funding. The government puts in 61 per cent and foreign investment makes up the remaining 11 per cent, according to the National Commission on Scientific and Technological Research (Conicyt).

The government says it will create financial incentives for private companies to invest in research and development, and will improve the quality of Chilean research institutions, help Chilean researchers take part in international networks of innovators and scientists, and strengthen links between public and private sector research.

As part of its plan to boost science, the government has set up several initiatives. The most recent of these, which Conicyt's president Eric Goles estimates will boost spending on science by 0.2 per cent of GDP, was approved on 18 May.

It will fund research with a new tax on profits made by the mining industry (see Chile faces row over bid to fund science with mining tax).

Each year, at least US$85 million generated this way will go to the newly created Innovation Fund for Competitiveness. Both research institutes and private companies will be able to apply for these grants for R&D projects that are deemed key to the country interests.

Two other initiatives, known as the Science and Technology Bicentennial Programme and the Technological Research Consortia Programme, have also been set up.

The first is supported by US$100 million from the World Bank to be spent between 2003 and 2009 on creating research teams and supporting collaborative research between universities and the private sector, and between Chilean researchers and their counterparts in other countries.

The consortia programme also encourages public-private research partnerships.

In addition, the government has brought together public (US$30 million) and private (US$20 million) money to support applied aeronautics and agricultural research. Nine projects have already been short-listed to share the combined funds, though the number to be funded has not yet been decided.

José Miguel Benavente, an economist at the University of Chile and an expert on R&D and innovation, says that although these initiatives are likely to meet Lagos's goals, the country lacks the policy framework to coordinate them.

Last year, Benavente published findings showing that Chilean public research funds are spread across more than 30 programmes and managed by several different agencies and secretariats.

"This could be solved by creating a central board to design a clear technology policy, focusing on three or four research areas and giving directions, priorities and rules to the projects underway, as happens in many other countries," says Benevente. "Doing this may increase the economic efficiency of public resources."

The main science and technology fields in which Chile is investing are information technologies and biotechnology in forestry, farming and aquaculture (see Vaccine 'could save Chile's salmon industry millions').