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Chile’s scientists take to the streets over funding

Researchers leave their labs to call for greater public support of research.

Scientists marched in Santiago to protest Chile's comparatively low rate of research funding. Credit: Gabriel León

Faced with street protests by researchers, together with the resignation of the nation’s top science official and the publication of an open letter accusing the government of ignorance, Chile’s Congress will on 16 November consider a budget increase of 150 million pesos (US$210,000) for the nation’s research funding agency.

The protests began with the resignation on 29 October of Francisco Brieva, who directed the funding agency — the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT). Brieva’s plans to invigorate public investment in Chilean science were stymied, he told Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper on 1 November, by a bureaucracy that “stifles”. Brieva said the fact that he hadn’t received a pay cheque in the six months since he assumed the position underscores how debilitated the agency is.

The 9 November open letter, republished by the newspapers El Mercurio and La Tercera, denounces the government for choosing “to ignore the voices of the national and international community and with its decisions plunge the country into ignorance and poverty”. The letter was drafted by Andrés Couve Correa, president of the Chilean Society for Cell Biology in Santiago, and Carolina Torrealba, director of new projects at the private research institute Fundación Ciencia & Vida in Santiago. Couve says that it has so far been signed by more than 1,800 researchers.

Short-termism

With a budget of 3.15 billion pesos, CONICYT funds more than 3,000 researchers through young-investigator grants, postdoctoral fellowships and grants to established scientists. But its funding has not expanded enough to accommodate all of the scientists trained domestically and abroad, says Jorge Babul, president of Chile’s Council of Scientific Societies in Santiago.

Chile invests less than 0.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in science, compared with 2.8% by the United States and 1.7% by Britain. Brazil is the only South American country that invests more than 1% of GDP in science.

Home to vast reserves of natural resources, Chile is one of South America’s largest and most stable economic powers. But the state adds little value to the resources that it exports, says Gabriel León González, a biochemist and director of the Center for Science Communication at Andrés Bello University in Santiago. He joined hundreds of other scientists to protest in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. He says that the government focuses on short-term profits over developing a scientific culture that would improve its prospects once resources such as copper, gold and fishmeal run out.

Scientists say that they are eager to advocate for themselves, but haven’t been given a seat at the table. The last two administrations have failed to increase the number of scientists on the committees that decide scientific funding, says César Hidalgo, a Chilean network scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In 2013, he says, the government set up a 15-person committee to discuss scientific institutions; all but 4 members were economists.

“There’s a disconnect between the scientific world and the political world,” says León. “We are not accelerating science and technology in Chile in a modern way. The scientific institution that exists right now is archaic.”

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Bajak, A. Chile’s scientists take to the streets over funding. Nature (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2015.18800

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