Thursday, December 13, 2007

Nature editorial about Venezuela: Critical optimism

This week's Nature issue features an editorial piece about the situation of Science and Democracy in Venezuela. The editorial is balanced and hopeful, an accurate analysis of the strengths and flaws of Venezuelan science, not all of them fault of the government, sadly.

Nature 450, 922 (13 December 2007) | doi:10.1038/450922a; Published online 12 December 2007

Venezuela's way ahead

The opportunities currently opening up for Venezuelan science should not be squandered.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, suffered his first electoral defeat for a decade on 2 December, when he unexpectedly lost a referendum on constitutional change that was supposed to cement his powers and accelerate socialist reform. The opposition was spearheaded by protest marches of hundreds of thousands of students, along with their professors. But the left-populist president, for all his flaws, has broadly supported universities and scientific research in Venezuela.

Chávez sees himself as the leader of a socialist revolution, modelled on the egalitarian ideals of Simón Bolívar, the Caracas-born general who led the liberation of much of South America from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. Chávez has nationalized major industries, including the oil companies, and has increasingly distanced Venezuela politically from the United States, its largest trading partner. Rapid economic growth has been sustained by the rising price of Venezuela's oil exports.

The Venezuelan president, while openly confronting the oil companies and other national élites, has taken steps to keep academics on his side. Like army officers, Venezuelan professors can retire at the age of 47 and receive generous pensions for the rest of their lives. Not everyone takes this up — but a sizeable fraction of the 33,000-strong academic workforce do just that. Professors also have the right to choose their own students. Their tendency to choose from the upper middle class may explain some of the student protests against Chávez's socialist government.

On the other hand, measures have been taken to strengthen the universities. In 2001, the government created a Ministry of Science and Technology, which distributes grant money on a competitive basis. And in January 2007 the Organic Law of Science, Technology and Innovation (LOCTI) came into effect, requiring Venezuela's 7,000 largest companies and commercial enterprises to pay a fraction of their annual taxes directly to universities and public research institutes. Overall public and private spending on science has quadrupled, to US$2.5 billion per year, the government says, reaching a very respectable 2.1% of gross domestic product in 2007.

As a result of these measures, some academics say, the Venezuelan science system is suddenly receiving more support than it can sensibly manage. Companies are investing in research projects as they see fit, without a proper system for evaluation of the proposed work. The government is now evaluating the first year of the work supported by LOCTI and must then find ways to channel more of the money into the most promising projects.

Obvious national research priorities range from infectious-disease research and rainforest ecology, to engineering and environmental problems related to oil retrieval. One problem is that few departments at Venezuela's 50 or so universities have sufficient staff and equipment to perform internationally competitive research. Another issue is that many professors are not especially interested in doing original research, as regular publication is not necessarily rewarded with promotion. Making research a prerequisite of a successful academic career — which should not end at the age of 47 — is the key to making Venezuelan science more productive.

Plans also exist to turn the country's premier research institute, the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research in Caracas, into a full-blown research university. This will help to produce qualified and motivated graduate students who can take Venezuelan science forward. The institute should have enough income from public and private sources to set up new centres in the Andes, the Amazon region and in the oil-rich state of Zulia in northwestern Venezuela — all of which need to raise their research profiles.

The referendum result has raised hopes that Venezuela's democracy will outlive Chávez, and build on some of his genuine achievements. The advent of stronger science at Venezuela's peripheries, as well as in its capital, is one legacy that could prove invaluable.

A mostly accurate summary of what's going on here. But some statements are ambiguous or inexact, as this claim: "Professors also have the right to choose their own students. Their tendency to choose from the upper middle class may explain some of the student protests against Chávez's socialist government.". This can mean several things, as the automatic admission into university that the children of professors enjoy (but also the children of administrative and maintenance staff), and also the right of professors to select the people that is going to research at their labs, but , isn't it like this everywhere? As far as I know, head researchers of labs are entitled to be quite selective about hiring new staff and admitting students (grads and undergrads, as here in Venezuela also undergraduate students need to do a thesis) all around the world, not only in Venezuela. And of course, this might explain some but by no means all of the opposition to Chávez among the students.

Despite coming from the working class and having strong liberal convictions (I call myself an Anarchist), I cannot stand this government, even if I am able to recognize its achievements. I hate its contempt and hate breeding, I despise its incompetent ministers on their posts by their loyalty to Chávez rather than by their skills, I am outraged by its rampant corruption and lack of attention to real problems, I am amused by its babbling in international politics and its messy diplomacy. And many of us, no matter from which social class, are also against much of this government. In fact, most of the students at my lab come from working or middle-low classes.

Now there are scholarships for grads and undergrads, enough money to live a decent life and now many of us are not emigrating now, despite the awful political situation, where you are a traitor or a puppet of the US if you disagree with the government and despite the insecurity, that can kill you or your loved ones. I had at least two offers to go abroad and several potential labs where I could apply also, in good universities, but I am also staying too. I am not a patriot, but I want to make things different, and it is easier to change something here than in a foreign country. Here in the developing world many things are yet to be done and there is a huge market of unmet needs, we must develop cheaper and faster ways of doing things, of delivering health care, diagnostic systems, informatic solutions, drugs for our particular diseases, obtaining varieties adapted for our soil and weather conditions. There is plenty to be done, there is money to do it (as long there is market for oil, so we must hurry up), even if for the long term things do not look so bright, as there are no permanent posts for young researchers and getting into the university is very tough. In my particular case there is also a key element: Creative freedom. Being able to put some ideas in practice and try to make them bloom is worth staying here, and when those projects involve also Open Sourcing physical technology, all becomes more exciting and worth the risk and annoyance of many factors we have to deal with daily. However, not all are motives for joy as political opinions are sometimes checked in order to get access to grants and sometimes the design of science policy is made by people who lack even the most basic scientific education. Many of the holy cows, who get funds and produce nothing, are still getting money, unexplainably and many of this money is being invested in juicy salaries rather than in research, as no single paper or patent has come from certain labs whose heads ear 15 times more than the scholarship of a grad student.

Here (In all Latin America, not only in Venezuela), in a not so competitive and developed environment as the US or Europe, a cooperative approach for building technical infrastructure makes sense, and bound to entrepreneurship could make a difference and allow that finally scientists are able to create their own start-ups and live from what they do, without having to enter into the university or getting hired by a company.

We the young scientists must try to overcome the flaws of our predecessors, which sometimes include intellectual dishonesty as I have seen in person in conferences for lay people, where data is obviously flawed , by supposedly top scientists from my university. We must work harder, we must not only publish but also build actual solutions for our many problems. The stakes are high, the work is hard, the task is huge, but I think that modern world gives the tools we need to fix things, to finally develop our societies and economies, to become more and achieve what previously was beyond our dreams. Open Source and networking are powerful forces and can be used in collaboration with new technologies to create collaborative environments where creativity, cleverness and joy will arise, where people are free to invent and explore, making profit, solving unmet needs at affordable prices and doing what they like. Is possible a better life than this?

Yes, that sounds too good to be true and does not account for the effects of the political situation, but if our technology is good and useful, then no matter what the policy is, it will be used, spread and will be adopted. Gene splicing itself does not depend of politics, and now with the possibility of outer funding, less than ever, even if a proper science policy is very important.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned. Interesting times are coming, and not only in Venezuela.

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