New law threatens Venezuelan science

Menéndez: the new law will make science "available to the people" Copyright: www.minci.gob.ve

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[CARACAS] A brief flowering of Venezuelan science, made possible by an unusual law passed in 2005, might come to an abrupt end in January.

Venezuelan scientists say that an amendment to the Organic Law on Science, Technology and Innovation (LOCTI), adopted by the Venezuelan National Assembly this month (8 December), could spell "the end of Venezuelan science" and may doom many thriving research projects.

An update to LOCTI in 2005 ordered that a new tax on industry be invested in research and development. The government says the tax has increased science spending from 0.39 per cent of gross domestic product to an impressive 2.69 per cent.

Companies are allowed to decide whether to invest the funds in internal research projects, external university or national laboratories, or a science ministry pot.

But the government has argued that this led to most of funds staying within private companies: in 2007 less than six per cent of the money was allocated externally.

The new law, which will come into effect on 1 January, will mandate companies to pay the tax directly to the ministry, removing the other two investment options. It will also create a new state agency to decide which scientific projects will be financed.

Ricardo Menéndez, minister of science, technology and intermediate industries, told the newspaper Correo del Orinoco that the objective of the new law is to make science funding "available to the people".

The focus will be shifted from individual scientists to outcomes, he said, moving science closer to social needs in energy, environment, urban development and housing, and away from the aims of private industry — in line with the country’s socialist politics.

But the future of many ongoing projects is now uncertain and scientists have expressed concern about the lack of consultation and the control government officials will now have over science funding.

Félix Tapia, the coordinator of the Council of Scientific and Humanistic Development at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and former president of the Venezuelan Association for the Advancement of Science, told SciDev.Net that the government’s motivation is "political". He added that there was no attempt to ask the private sector to diversify funding.

Jaime Requena, a member of the Venezuelan Academy of Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, told Science that giving the government full control over science funding "might very well mean the end of science in the country".

José Miguel Cortázar, professor at the UCV and former executive director of the National Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation told SciDev.Net that "the LOCTI has opened a field of unprecedented opportunities in a wide range of knowledge areas … This is an added value that would be regrettable to waste".