Poor conditions blamed for Venezuelan scientist exodus

Venezuela_ Jacob Silberberg_Panos
Copyright: Jacob Silberberg/Panos

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  • Unusually high numbers of professors are quitting universities
  • But a lack of data means it is unclear how many academics have emigrated
  • The flight has been blamed on crime, poor pay and limited research funding

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Government-funded universities in Venezuela are witnessing a flight of scientists and professors, leaving them unable to fill posts, according to recent reports.

At Simón Bolívar University, around 240 professors have quit over the past five years — an unusually high number, says Rafael Álvarez, a representative of the university’s Association of Professors.

“I’ve been working here for 34 years and never seen something like this before,” he tells SciDev.Net. “It’s devastating.”

The Central University of Venezuela has lost around 700 faculty members between 2011 and 2012, according to its Association of Professors.

About 400 of those who left were considered to be the next generation of professors and researchers, says Víctor Márquez, president of the Association of Professors of the Central University of Venezuela. And around 500 of them said they were leaving because of economic conditions, he adds.

“We need to restore respect and funding to basic research to halt the brain drain and reverse this catastrophic trend.”

Claudio Bifano

The University of Zulia has 1,577 unfilled professor posts, according to reports given in late 2013 by the administrative vice-chancellor Maria Nuñez.

Iván de la Vega, a sociologist at Simón Bolívar University, tells SciDev.Net that this phenomenon has worsened in recent years.

De la Vega estimates that around a million Venezuelans emigrated during the 14-year rule of the late President Hugo Chávez, settling in some 65 countries. But it is difficult to know exactly how many were academics. SciDev.Net asked the Venezuelan Ministry of Higher Education for an official answer, but none was given.

Neighbouring Brazil has 1.33 researchers for every 1,000 inhabitants, according to a 2010 UN report. According to an article in Nature on 11 June, the equivalent ratio in Venezuela is 0.4.

“Much of Venezuela’s technology and scientific capacity, built up over half a century, has been lost in the past decade,” writes Claudio Bifano, president of the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, in that Nature report. “We need to restore respect and funding to basic research to halt the brain drain and reverse this catastrophic trend.”

De la Vega says the brain drain is due to high crime rates, a lack of funding for universities and low salaries.

“In 1995, a Venezuelan researcher earned US$800 a month. Today, he earns US$433, taking into account the cumulative inflation the country has suffered.”
Physicist Alexandra De Castro is one who decided to leave. After spending three years as a researcher in Germany, she taught briefly at Simón Bolívar University.

“I quickly realised how fast the conditions were deteriorating. In March 2009, I was offered a position at the University of Sydney, in Australia, where I worked until December 2012, when my husband, also a researcher, took a job in Holland. It’s sad to say, but most of my friends just didn’t come back to Venezuela after finishing their PhDs.”

Bifano tells SciDev.Net that the current situation makes it highly appealing and “intellectually profitable” for scientists to move abroad.

Those who stay do it for different personal reasons, but none of the scientists interviewed by SciDev.Net do so believing that their working and living conditions are adequate.

Jimmy Castillo, a chemist at the Central University of Venezuela, refuses to abandon the new generation.

“I interact everyday with hundreds of young men and women who, just like me, have dreams, hope of a better life and [have] a lot of spirit to make it happen,” he says. “I can’t do anything else but accompany them.”

Link to Nature report