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[BOGOTA] Colombia is making slow progress in science and technology despite taking steps to boost the sector in recent years, according to a report by the Observatory of Science and Technology (OCyT), a body set up in 1999 by leading Colombian science organisations.

Science and Technology Indicators, Colombia 2004 was presented to members of Colombia's scientific community at the Maloka interactive science and technology centre in Bogota on 17 November.

According to the report, Colombia invested 0.38 per cent of its gross domestic product in science and technology in 2004, up from 0.30 per cent in 1995.

Speaking at the report's launch, OCyT's director José Luis Villaveces said that while the figures are not totally accurate, they are the best available. His conclusion was that, overall, Colombia's investment in science had neither improved nor worsened in the past decade.

One aspect of Colombia's science sector that has improved is the number of papers published in journals listed by the Science Citation Index, which tracks nearly 6,000 of the world's leading science journals. Between 1996 and 2003, they grew in number from 300 to more than 600.

This growth in output followed the creation in 1994 of Colombia's first PhD courses. Today, Colombian universities offer more than 40 PhD programmes. The government also offers support to Colombians completing their doctorates overseas.

Colombia's biggest mistake was not starting its doctoral programme sooner, said Villaveces, noting that Chile and Venezuela began their PhD programmes in the 1970s. The delay in Colombia, he added, led to "a kind of paralysis in the research done in universities".

Despite the increase in publications, the report shows that Colombia produces just 2.4 per cent of Latin American research papers. It comes sixth on this list, below Brazil (43.8 per cent), Mexico (18.5 per cent), Argentina (18.1 per cent), Chile (8 per cent) and Venezuela (4.1 per cent).

Jorge Charum, one of the OCyT researchers, said those countries have had stronger, clearer science and research policies, even during periods of dictatorship.

The OCyT statistics also reveal a slow rate of innovation in Colombia. In 2003, only 69 patent applications were submitted in Colombia and just four of those were approved.

Villaveces said the low level of home-grown innovation was partly due to the Colombian private sector's preference for foreign technology and partly because scientists did not trust industry.

He told SciDev.Net it was essential that all Colombians appreciate that "we can produce, adapt, transform, innovate, modify and use knowledge".

Villaveces and Charum said the information in the report should prompt action from policymakers.

Also speaking at the launch, Francisco Gutiérrez, a researcher at the Institute for Political Studies and International Relations, said that though the report provides important information, there is little new in it. "The news is that Colombia is the same or worse than ten years ago," he said.

Rafael Orduz, chief executive officer of the Bogotá Telecommunications Company and a former member of congress, believes the report generates more questions than answers and that Colombia should be concerned about its results.

The Observatory of Science and Technology was formed in 1999 by the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology, the Colombian Academy of Science, and 19 universities and other scientific associations.