Published online 7 June 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.352

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Scientists hopeful over election of new Peruvian president

Science and technology may grow under Ollanta Humala.

HumalaPresident-elect Ollanta Humala had more emphasis on science and technology in his campaign.Elie Gardner

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate, likened voting in the country's presidential elections — a battle between Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala — to a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer.

But deciding between Fujimori, the daughter of jailed ex-president Alberto Fujimori, and Humala, a former ally of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, wasn't as tough for scientists, says Modesto Montoya, a nuclear physicist and coordinator of the International Network of Science and Technology in Peru.

"Keiko's plan says not one word about science, but Ollanta's plan has nine pages about the evaluation of science and technology," Montoya said. "For scientists it was very easy to choose."

Fujimori conceded Monday night, and Ollanta Humala became Peru's president-elect in one of the tighest races in Peru's history.

Huamala's campaign sold itself as the best solution to the enduring gap between rich and poor, despite a decade of economic progress and a decrease in poverty. But investors — largely backing Fujimori's candidacy — showed their uncertainty Monday when the Lima stock market hit a record low, plummeting 12.5%.

Juan Rodriguez, professor at the National University of Engineering in Lima, says science and technology are part of the solution for Peru's poverty. Rodriguez investigates new technologies and materials to purify water, specifically to help those living in poverty in rural areas.

Rodriguez says Peru lacks the funds, scientists and equipment for his work, so he's had to look elsewhere. In addition to his work in Peru, he is an associate academic at the Universidad of Tarapacá just across the border in Chile and has recently conducted bi-national projects with the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and the University of Cádiz in Spain. Rodriguez also coordinates Nanoandes, a virtual school for nanotechnology that offers interactive science lectures and videos in Spanish. The project is a collaboration among several Latin American countries and France.

Big boost

Humala's plan for science and technology calls for more technical institutions, support for foreign collaboration, scholarships in the sciences, the creation of a well-paid professional science and technology career path and the creation of a Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

“We need to see money, and we need to see it well spent.”

Ronald Woodman
Peruvian Geophysical Institute

Rolando Paucar, president of the Research Institute for Energy and Development, says the government plan is missing the "how" and says he hopes more specific plans will be released in the coming weeks.

While the science community welcomed most of the propositions, the planned ministry has divided opinion.

Science and technology in Peru currently falls under the jurisdiction of several ministries, depending on the field of study. The main government body, the National Council for Science, Technology and Innovation Technology, answers to the Ministry of Education.

Montoya says the education minister is too preoccupied with basic education and literacy to advocate for science and technology. He says that one dedicated ministry would lead to better organization, a stronger voice and additional funding for the sciences.

But Miguel Ascón, a microbiologist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and president of Baltimore-based BriJen BioTech, says that the formation of a new ministry would "only create more bureaucracy". He suggests that Peru follow in Singapore's footsteps by creating something similar to Singapore's science and technology agency, A *STAR, which reports to the ministry of trade and industry.

Job creation

According to the International Network of Science and Technology, 3,500 Peruvian scientists work outside of the country. Ascón estimates that only 150 scientists are publishing scientific papers in Peru, and says the new government needs to focus on recruiting Peruvian and non-Peruvian scientist from around the world. In Humala's victory speech Sunday night he said he hopes to lure Peruvians from all professions back home with additional investment and the creation of jobs.

Peru invests 0.15% of its GDP in research and development, according to the most recent statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, lagging behind several of its neighbours. Brazil invests 1.1% of its GDP, Chile 0.7% and Argentina 0.5%. In comparison, the United States invests 2.7% and South Korea 3.5%. Humala's government plan sets a goal of raising Peru's investment to 0.7% within three years.

"Science and Technology in Peru may have an excellent opportunity to increase its investment of 0.15% of its GDP in this presidential term to 1%," says Jorge Del Carpio of the National Council for Science, Technology and Technological Innovation.

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Ronald Woodman, president of the Peruvian Geophysical Institute, says he won't be optimistic about the future of science and technology in the country until he sees Humala's science plan in action. "We need to see money, and we need to see it well spent."

Humala calls for the nation to regain ownership of its wealth of natural resources. According to his government plan, he is in favour of "clean technologies that have the least environmental impact" — including nuclear power — and plans to protect the country from deforestation. He also promises to respect indigenous territories in the process of resource extraction, an issue that has led to violent protests in the Puno region in the past month.

Paucar believes more research and technology will provide solutions to many of Peru's pressing issues: the future of energy, scarcity of water, debate over transgenic seeds and the physical difficulties of high-altitude conditions, such as extreme cold. "We are a people who want to solve problems using science," he says. 

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