Chile election reignites tussle over science policy

Country's next president could reshape proposal for new science ministry.
President elect Sebastian Pinera waves a Chilean flag on December 17th.

After winning Chile's runoff election for president, Sebastian Piñera waves the country's flag during a victory celebration on 17 December.Credit: Claudio Reyes/Getty

Chile’s new President-elect Sebastián Piñera is poised to reshape science policy in the country. His plans to forge closer ties among science, education and industry have sparked enthusiasm from scientists who hope the plan will bolster support for their work — but also concern about possible changes in research priorities.

During the most recent election cycle — which culminated in a runoff vote on 17 December — Piñera campaigned on a platform that combined higher education, science, technology and innovation. That echoes the policies he pursued as Chile’s president from 2010 to 2014, when he tried to create a ministry encompassing those areas. Piñera was unsuccessful then, and when President Michelle Bachelet succeeded him, she replaced his bill with one proposing the creation of a Ministry of Science and Technology. That measure is currently before Congress.

Some scientists worry that if Bachelet hasn’t signed her bill into law by the time Piñera takes office on 11 March, he could withdraw it and replace it with his proposal for a ministry that would lump together higher education with science and technology. Although the topics are connected, scientists say, they fear that science and technology policy and funding might be dwarfed in a combined ministry.

“Science could end up taking a back seat in a ministry that includes higher education," says Mario Hamuy, president of the board of directors of the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) in Santiago.

Uncertain prospects

The incoming government would not reject the law currently before Congress if the legislature fails to approve it before Piñera takes office, says Hernán Cheyre, director of the Entrepreneurship Institute at the University of Development in Santiago and a campaign adviser to Piñera. But it would seek to add "innovation" to the new ministry's mission, to connect research more closely with private-sector needs. Including higher education in the ministry would be a future goal, Cheyre says.

No matter what happens with the science-ministry bill, Piñera will need to address the lack of jobs for the growing number of young Chileans earning Master's degrees and doctorates in science and other fields.

Only 1 of every 1,000 employed Chileans is a researcher; the average ratio for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is 8. Government scholarship programmes aim to boost Chile’s numbers: as of mid-2017, more than 5,300 graduate students were receiving aid. About one-third of scholarship recipients study abroad, but there are not enough research jobs in Chile to absorb all of the graduates who want to return.

Natural disasters, water and the digital transition — including development of smart cities — are some of the current administration's science priorities, says Hamuy. Expanding research programmes in those areas would increase job opportunities for young scientists, he adds. As part of a pilot programme slated to start in 2018, one-fifth of CONICYT's scholarships for Master's-degree students will go to people studying those topics. CONICYT hopes that the proportion of targeted scholarships could expand to include PhD studies in the future, Hamuy says.

Looking to the future

But that pilot programme could change. Piñera favours allowing the private sector, rather than government, to shape the country's research agenda, Cheyre says.

This worries some researchers. Investments to increase job opportunities for researchers who complete graduate degrees would require not just scholarships and fellowships, but also long-term funding for research institutions, scientists say.

But businesses are not always willing to invest in long-term research, says Fernando Valiente, a microbiologist at the University of Chile in Santiago and national coordinator of More Science for Chile, a civic movement that has strongly backed the creation of a science-only ministry. Chile spends just 0.38% of its gross domestic product on research — the smallest percentage of any nation in the OECD, where the average is 2.38%.

To address this, Piñera's plan calls for incentives, including tax breaks for industry, to boost research-and-development spending, Cheyre says.

Despite the worries over combining science with innovation and education, Víctor Cifuentes, dean of the University of Chile School of Sciences, says that they cannot be separated. "To teach science, you have to do science," he says.

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