Confusion over research centre’s eviction in Venezuela

Sea Turtle_James Morgan_Panos
Copyright: James Morgan/Panos

Speed read

  • The Los Roques centre has done marine research and conservation since 1967
  • It now must hand its facilities to a new military-run centre by the end of September
  • But there are only cursory details about what research the new centre will do

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[CARACAS] The Venezuelan government has ordered the sudden eviction of the Los Roques Scientific Foundation, a maritime research institute that will be replaced with a secretive new military-led research organisation — leaving scientists confused about the surprise decision and stirring debate about the politicisation of science.

The four people running the philanthropically funded station may lose their jobs since no alternative facility has been provided and the station’s research and outreach projects will largely stop.

The foundation has worked in its premises in the Los Roques National Park, an archipelago located about 130 kilometres north of the Venezuelan mainland since 1967.

“We don’t know any of the scientists working in this new organisation or their research projects.”

Magaly Camargo, Los Roques Scientific Foundation

It specialises in research and conservation of the archipelago’s species and ecosystems. For example, it runs a programme that promotes the breeding, conservation and development of several species of local sea turtle.

The official resolution, made on 30 June, points out that the foundation must hand over its labs and other facilities, which are on the Dos Mosquises islands to local authorities by the end of September.

The facility consists of ten small buildings that can accommodate up to 31 researchers and visitors. They include two laboratories and turtle breeding rooms, as well as a tourist information and education centre.

The buildings are due to be taken over by a recently created government organisation called the Francisco de Miranda Maritime Research Foundation (Fundamar-Miranda), which aims to “promote and develop submarine scientific research, as well as to preserve and protect underwater cultural heritage”, according to a government notice (see here).

Magaly Camargo, director-general of Los Roques Scientific Foundation, tells SciDev.Net that the decision was completely unexpected and that the organisation has not been informed about how the government wants to use its facilities.

“We don’t know any of the scientists working in this new organisation or their research projects,” she says. “We have shown publicly our intentions of working together with them, but nobody seems to have more details about them.”

Congressman Guido Ochoa, president of the Science and Technology Commission of the Venezuelan National Assembly and member of the ruling political party, says he does not “know the names of the scientists working at the new foundation or any possible research plans, so I can’t comment about it”.

But Navy admiral Gilberto Pinto Blanco, the head of government at the Miranda Insular Territory, to which Los Roques belongs, who will head the Fundamar-Miranda, claims that Los Roques Scientific Foundation has failed to make “any kind of scientific contribution in the past 15 years”.

“So the national government, moved by the love it feels for scientific research, decided not to renew their permit and to assume the responsibility for the facilities with the new Fundamar-Miranda foundation,” he says.

But when asked for more details about future research projects and the scientists who will be working there, he said “the organisation was still too young” and currently lacked specific plans.

Meanwhile, Camargo shows a list of 23 published articles, four books, and contributions to 11 research congresses and press clippings, produced by the foundation since 1999.

She says her organisation will try every legal avenue available to them to stop the procedure and is consulting with attorneys about the next steps.

The government move has unleashed a new debate about the politicisation of science in a country where some scientists have been accusing the government for years of putting politics ahead of good science.

The discussion has extended to social media, where the public have mostly criticised the measure with people gathering signatures asking President Nicolás Maduro to stop the eviction.

Antonio Machado-Allison, secretary of Venezuela’s Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, and former advisor to the Los Roques Scientific Foundation, tells SciDev.Net it is worrying to see the government trying to “eliminate Venezuelan professionals and substitute them with political representatives without scientific expertise”.

He says the eviction will also affect ecotourism and environmental educational programmes run by the foundation, which benefit local people. “Over 100 theses were developed in their facilities,” he says. “The research done there helped Los Roques gain its national park status in 1972.”

> Government gazette with the eviction decree (in Spanish)