Colombia: Scientific Community Concerned Over Resignation of Top Official

Jaime Restrepo Cuartas [es], director of the Administrative Department of Science, Technology, and Innovation, Colciencias, resigned [es] late June to his post. Mr Restrepo, former president of the University of Antioquia and representative to the House (2006-2010), was one of the sponsors of the law 1286 of 2009 [es], which promoted Colciencias from a section of the National Planning Department (DNP) to an administrative department (a “quasi-Ministry”) and issued a new policy for ST&I (Science, Technology, and Innovation).

Colciencias was created [es] in 1968 as a fund for science research within the Ministry of Education. In 1991 it became [es] an institute for science and technology part of the DNP. Mr Restrepo's resignation has raised concern among the scientific community about the future of Colciencias (the main source of funding for most Colombian scientists) and the future of research in general in the country.

In [es] several [es] interviews [es], Restrepo has stated that there is “no real support” from the administration of president Juan Manuel Santos for Colciencias and that inconsistencies exist between the goals aimed by the government and the financial resources allocated by the Finance Ministry, which would cut Colciencias’ budget for 2013 (in fact, Restrepo said [es] that the finance minister has not given an appointment to him in four months). Colciencias’ staff has been frozen since the mid-1990s [es] but, since research groups have multiplied several times, the staff is overwhelmed.

Otto Gerardo writes [es] about this in the blog La Parresia:

De pasada, el suceso entre Colciencias y Hacienda, revela el estilo y el modo de ser rico en Colombia: en la legalidad, a través de la acumulación de tierra, la ganadería extensiva y la intensa y despiadada extracción de materias primas, que a la larga, nos conducirá a la miseria; y en la ilegalidad, por vías del narcotráfico y el negocio de la guerra, que se parapeta en lo más oscuro y criminal de la mente humana, cuando las condiciones de los que representan la legalidad, no construyen las avenidas amplias de las posibilidades de riqueza, desarrollo y bienestar a las que puede conducir una nación con pleno desarrollo científico.

In fact, the incident between Colciencias and the Finance [Ministry] reveals the style and the way of being rich in Colombia: legally, through land accumulation, extensive stockbreeding and intense and ruthless extraction of raw materials, which eventually, will lead us to misery; and illegally, through drug trafficking and the business of war, which shelters in the darkest and most criminal [places] of human mind, when the conditions of those representing legality don't build the wide avenues of the possibilities of wealth, development and welfare which a nation with complete scientific development can lead.

Expectations were high within the scientific community since president Santos pushed a constitutional reform [es] that passed in Congress last year, which redistributed the oil royalties paid to the state and allocated 10% of them for a fund to science, technology and innovation [es]. But these resources will be distributed regionally [es], to finance investment projects aiming to solve local needs according to the development plans issued by local authorities, and Colciencias is set to be only one [es] of multiple instances in the process [es], which includes ministries, governors [es], mayors, etc.

Shortly after Restrepo's resignation, there were rumours [es] claiming that Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, a controversial former mayor of Medellín, had been offered to replace him. Some researchers published a letter to President Santos [es] expressing their concern and asking him for political will to strengthen Colciencias. Around 1,500 academics signed it [es]. Another three letters [es] have been sent to the President.

Santiago Giraldo is also worried about the future of Colciencias and adds [es]:

Casi que se podría decir que Colciencias existe en Colombia porque daría pena, oso si se quiere, no tener una institución como las que hay en otros países de Suramérica o del mundo desarrollado, no porque realmente se quiera que haya investigación en C y T.

You could arguably say that Colciencias exists in Colombia because it would be embarrassing, even ridiculous, to not have such an institution as those in other countries in South America or the developed world, not because [the government] actually wants research in science and technology.

Carlos Estévez writes [es] about nine points Mr Restrepo explained as the reasons innovation does not “start” in Colombia [es]. One of them is:

6. Ahora resulta que Bancoldex es el ente mas apropiado para gestionar el proceso de innovación, aquí lo que se evidencia es la absoluta ignorancia en lo que debe ser in sistema de C&T+I, por eso las tres iniciales, Innovación sin ciencia y tecnología no existe.
Si no hay dinero para investigar en ciencia básica o aplicada o en la implementación, apropiación de tecnologías de todo tipo, con que base piensan innovar? Esto le quita las manos al sistema de C&T+I.

6. Now it turns out that Bancoldex [a Colombian state bank focused on external trade] is the most appropriate entity to manage the innovation process. This is evidence of absolute ignorance about what a ST&I system should be, that's why there are three initials, innovation without science and technology doesn't exist.
If there's no money to research on basic or applied science, or implementation, appropriation of all kinds of technology, with which foundation do they intend to innovate with? This cuts the ST&I system its hands.

For the time being, Jorge Alonso Cano, Colciencias director of innovation, has been in charge of the institution [es]. Political website La Silla Vacía [es] and TV newscast CM& [es] have claimed that Santos will appoint a new director close to the green party [es], whose candidate lost the 2010 presidential election in the second round (despite this, the green party joined the ruling coalition).

Professor Alexis de Greiff criticizes the government for weakening Colciencias and the possibility of ‘granting’ it to a political party, and states [es]:

Colciencias necesita de un gerente público que haga política de CTI desde una posición de credibilidad entre científicos y empresarios.

Colciencias needs a public manager who makes a ST&I policy from a credibility position among scientists and businesspeople.
Thumbnail image by Flickr user Move the Clouds (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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