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Tension between Venezuelan academics and their president, Hugo Chávez, has mounted further after Chávez criticised the country's scientists, say observers.

Chávez instructed scientists to stop working on "obscure projects" and make themselves useful to people living in slums in his weekly television programme in early May. He has also commented that the science minister should "put the screws" on "feeble scientists" to get better results.

The criticisms add to a variety of concerns about government involvement in science in the country.

In April science minister Nuris Orihuela — a geophysical engineer — was dismissed and replaced by Jesse Chacón, an engineer and army lieutenant who critics say has few scientific credentials.

Disaffected researchers say that science funding is becoming politicised and there are complaints that the government has made broad cuts in funding, is mismanaging research and targeting dissident scientists.

Peer-reviewed publications from Venezuelan scientists dropped 15 per cent between 2006 and 2008 and some scientists view the outcome of a programme where tax from private companies goes to research and innovation as disappointing.

The government also recently decreed the creation of about 40 new universities in addition to the 51 existing institutions.

Claudio Bifano, president of the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, says that this number of institutions is unnecessary; that the country doesn't have the resources for them and that the plan could lead to the closure of universities not aligned to government policies.

Prudencio Chacón, president of the government's Institute for Advanced Studies, speaking on behalf of the science minister, denies the government is cutting funding or imposing political control over science.

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