Colombian scientists protest at government neglect

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, has been the focus of complaints from the country's scientists Copyright: Flickr/OECD

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[BOGOTÁ] More than 1,400 Colombian scientists have signed a letter to the country’s president, urging the government to pay more attention to the role of science and technology in promoting innovation.

They say that if the current government wants to become a member of the Organisation for the Economic Cooperation and Development, Colombia has to demonstrate certain minimum indicators, such as high numbers of scientists, publications, patents and inventions.

The letter is one of four that were sent to President Juan Manuel Santos two weeks ago (17 July), protesting about inadequate support for science. The other three came from the Colombian Association for the Advancement of Science (ACAC), the International Center for Physics (CIF), and the Colombian Academy of Science.

The CIF researchers, for example, said that it was a "serious misconception" for the government to ignore the role that research and development plays in innovation.

The ACAC refers to two other issues that it says are crucial for the development of the country and need to be addressed: better education in science in all levels, and programmes for public engagement with science.

The science academy stresses the importance of increasing the public funding to the sector and of developing the National System of science, technology and innovation.

Jairo H. Restrepo, vice-chancellor of the University of Antioquia, in Medellín, and a signatory of the scientists’ letter, told SciDev.Net that the issues to which the four letters refer "have always been there", but had "become more acute in the last two years".

The promotion of country’s leading research-funding agency, the Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias) to near ministry-level status in 2009 was not accompanied by the financial support or manpower required to sustain this promotion.

This has increased the problems faced by the institution, because the Colombian science community has more than doubled in size over the past decade. But Colciencias has not expanded at the same rate.

The fourteen hundred scientists therefore are calling on the president to "show the political will to strengthen Colciencias".

Initially the scientific community had welcomed a decision by the government to allocate ten per cent of mining royalties to science, technology and innovation.

However last month’s letter points out that “the way the allocation is planned and the way innovation is conceived by the government does not include Colciencias or the research centers”.

The letters coincide with the resignation of Jaime Restrepo (June 22), the head of Colciencias, who said in his bi-annual report on the organization’s activities that the government had failed to pay sufficient attention to the institution.

Restrepo added that if the government wanted to achieve its stated goals for the period 2010­–14 – for example, doubling the number of active Colombian researchers from 15,000 to 30,000 – the total budget of Colciencias needed to increase from its current US$236 million to at least US$331 million by 2013.

In contrast, the government announced last Friday (July 27) that as part of the overall budget that it is submitting to Congress for 2013, Colciencias will receive US$225 million, an increase of only 1.6 per cent on the equivalent figure for 2012.

Hernán Jaramillo, dean of economics at the Universidad del Rosario, in Bogotá, and another of the letter’s signatories, said this was the first time there had been "consensus [in the scientific community] about common issues [of concern]".

[This text replaces a previous version of this story posted on 25 July.]