Colombian scientists are cautiously optimistic after the country’s Senate voted to create the nation’s first Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
Researchers hope that the ministry, announced in mid-December, is a signal that the government will start to address years of declining budgets and poorly coordinated science priorities. The move elevates Colombia’s existing science agency, giving research an advocate and agenda in President Iván Duque’s cabinet meetings, and placing it on equal footing with other ministries such as defence or foreign affairs.
But others say that for the research environment in Colombia to truly improve, there needs to be a cultural shift in how the country educates and employs scientists.
The new ministry will struggle without a system of meritocracy, the competent execution of state policy or adequate resources, says immunologist Gabriela Delgado, at the National University of Colombia in Bogota. “This can’t work the same as other ministries,” she says, referencing the corruption scandals that have plagued other parts of the government.
“We have the people, we have the knowledge, we have the biological resources — we are just missing the funding,” says Paul Chavarriaga, a plant biotechnologist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.
What’s old is new
The science ministry will take shape through a restructuring of Colombia’s science agency, the 50-year-old Colciencias, which has been subject to budget cuts in recent years. Funding decreased from US$135 million in 2013 to $106 million in 2018.
Creation of the ministry follows a 2016 treaty between the government and the left-wing guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that ended 50 years of civil conflict in Colombia. A top government priority has been to open up highly biodiverse regions — once inaccessible because of guerrilla control — to scientists and economic development.
Colombia currently invests only 0.24% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in research and development (R&D), according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization figures. It increases to 0.67% if building and other infrastructure costs are included, says Fanor Mondragon, a chemist and member of the Colombian Academy of Science based in Medellin.
President Duque has pledged to increase R&D spending to 1.5% of GDP by 2022, following a failed commitment for a similar investment by former president Juan Manuel Santos in 2015. Of the countries in the region, Brazil (1.17% of GDP), Argentina (0.59%) and Mexico (0.53%) invest the most in R&D.
Mondragon says Colombian industries currently outsource most of their R&D, and that the country needs institutes of applied sciences to bring resources and talent back to Colombia.
“We need to deliver both applied and basic research,” Mondragon says. “Putting money into Colciencias isn’t enough, because we do not have a science and technology system to promote the research we need in Colombia.”
Colombians generally have a favourable view of science, says Ximena Serrano Gil, the president of the Colombian Association of Scientific Journalism in Bogota. But they don’t see it as being a priority or integral to their daily lives, she adds. Colciencias conducted a survey of Colombian students last year and found that half of them weren’t interested in science.
Hopefully, the creation of the ministry will promote the democratization of knowledge through public policy, as well as the participation of researchers and science journalists, Serrano Gil says.
The ministry’s leadership is also crucial, says Mondragon. “It is important the minister has a knowledge-based vision for the development of the country.”
Iván Darío Agudelo, the Colombian senator who championed the formation of the science ministry, says President Duque will pick the new minister during the 12-month transformation of Colciencias. Agudelo hopes the president will choose someone in the mould of Pedro Duque — the astronaut currently serving as Spain’s science minister — or neuroscientist Andrés Couve Correa, the inaugural head of Chile’s Ministry of Science and Technology.
“We need to have a minister with a scientific aptitude and a political attitude,” Agudelo says.
Nature 565, 273-274 (2019)