Chile, keen to become a knowledge society, creates a ministry of science

Scientists say success will depend on budget and leadership

scientist looking at ice
A Chilean scientist in action at Glaciar Unión, a polar station operated by the Armed Forces of Chile and the Antarctic Chilean Institute.FELIPE TRUEBA/EFE/Newscom

Scientists in Chile have welcomed last week's decision by Congress to create a science ministry. Many researchers hope that a dedicated ministry will give science more prominence and better-coordinated policies—provided the ministry's budget matches the government's ambitions to "bring Chile towards an information and knowledge society," as Gonzalo Blumel, the country's minister secretary-general of the presidency, put it in a statement issued after the 31 May vote.

According to Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic are the only Latin American countries with science ministries. Fernando Valiente Echeverría, an HIV researcher at the University of Chile in Santiago, says he hopes other countries in the region will be inspired to follow suit.

"Chile is one of the leaders in terms of research in the region," the Chilean bill says; yet the country only spent 0.38% of its gross domestic product on R&D in 2014—on par with Uruguay, but below neighboring Argentina (0.59%) and Brazil (1.17%). Chile's economy relies on extracting and exporting natural resources such as copper, but that isn't sustainable in the long term, the document states. Countries that made a shift toward growth based on "knowledge and creativity" have ramped up investments in education, science, and technology, it continues.

At the moment, most of the country's science funds are managed by Chile's National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), an agency of the Ministry of Education set up in 1968, which had a budget of about 328 billion Chilean pesos ($520 million) last year. But research spending is split between "multiple funds, programs and councils, dispersed in different ministries and services," the bill says.

The law foresees the creation of a National Agency for Research and Development that will replace CONICYT, and a group of eight external advisers to counsel the government on the assignment of science funding. Valiente says the new ministry could make funding more coherent and agile: "Do existing funding programs fulfill the mission for which they were set up? It's an opportunity to redefine them."

In November 2015, ScienceInsider reported that frustrated Chilean scientists took to the streets to complain about poor working conditions and career prospects. Although problems such as delays in grant payments persist, communication between the government and researchers' groups has improved "substantially" since then, says Valiente, who is also the coordinator of More Science for Chile, a group that campaigned for the ministry's creation.

Now that it is becoming a reality, "We will need 2 or 3 years to see what this ministry can really achieve," Valiente says. Researchers have made it clear that they want one of their peers to become Chile's first science minister, but the government hasn't put forward any names yet. The ministry's budget will likely be announced in October as part of the government's overall budget statement; once the law is promulgated, the president has 1 year to set the ministry's start date.

The ministry's gestation took a long time—about 5 years, straddling three presidential terms from opposing political sides—precisely because the government made efforts to include researchers, universities, businesses, and other organizations in the drafting process, the biologist adds.

One of the sticking points during congressional negotiations was intellectual property regimes. If a research project gives rise to a patent, the state will have the right to a nonexclusive license; if that patent is commercialized, researchers will have to return the public funds they received. In a letter sent to El Mercurio on 3 June, 17 vice-rectors and research directors from Chilean universities complained that this rule is a barrier to knowledge transfer, rather than an incentive.

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