Controversy over sacked Venezuelan scientist

Jaime Requena Copyright: ASOVAC

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[CARACAS] The dismissal of a Venezuelan scientist has reignited controversy over academic freedom among scientists in the country.

Jaime Requena, a biologist and professor at the Foundation Institute of Advanced Studies of Venezuela (IDEA), was dismissed last month (April 13) in a letter signed by Prudencio Chacón, the institute’s director. Requena has had a 40-year career in science, including the directorship of IDEA in the 1980s.

Requena says his work and his opposition to the government of president Hugo Chávez are the reasons for his dismissal.

In a recent project he measured Venezuelan researchers’ productivity by analysing their publication rates in national and international journals. His preliminary results indicated that scientific productivity is at its lowest in 25 years.

Requena also wrote a letter published in Nature in January 2008 denouncing falling public financing for Venezuelan scientific projects, particularly in the social sciences, for which he says he was disciplined by Prudencio Chacón.

After the dismissal, IDEA issued a public letter (24 April) saying Requena had breached the terms of his contract by simultaneously working for another institution, the Metropolitan University (Fundamet). IDEA also said Requena had a conflict of interest when he recommended that IDEA buy software developed by Fundamet.

Requena rejects this, saying he resigned from Fundamet the moment he resumed working for IDEA in 2007. He argues the software he recommended is essential to his work.

Requena has written to Jesse Chacón, the Minister of Science and Technology, to argue his case but says he has received no reply. He now plans to take his case to the courts.

"Up to the moment no legal action has been taken because my attorneys are studying the options that we have," he told SciDev.Net.

This is the second time Requena has been dismissed from IDEA. He told SciDev.Net he believes that his first dismissal, in 1995, was for opposing a takeover of IDEA by the Simón Bolívar University. After a legal battle lasting 12 years he was reinstated in 2007.

Luis Carbonell, president of the Commission of Human Rights at the Venezuelan Association for the Advancement of Science (ASOVAC), told SciDev.Net that he believes the episode demonstrates Venezuelan scientists’ lack of independence.

"There is an official disdain towards critical thinking. Science centres are even banning researchers from expressing public opinions or making statements to the media without the official consent," he says. He gives other examples, such as universities restricting Internet access.

This is the second time ASOVAC has questioned a public institution’s dismissal of a scientist. Two years ago the physicist Claudio Mendoza was sacked as chief of the laboratory of physics computing at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) after writing an article in El Nacional newspaper deriding government plans to acquire nuclear technology (see Venezuelan scientist demoted for nuclear wisecrack).

In 2003, 881 workers, mostly technical and scientific researchers, were dismissed from INTEVEP, the state-owned research centre for the petroleum industry, for joining a strike against Hugo Chávez’s government.

And in 2005, IVIC’s Maria Nieves García published research about high anaemia rates in two-year-old children attending health clinics in three Venezuelan states. The Department of Science published a letter in newspapers questioning the research’s importance and hinting its publication was motivated by an anti-government agenda.