State Universities: Construction of Knowledge in Alliance with Citizenship

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By Francisco Rothhammer, Professor at the Instituto de Alta Investigación, Universidad de Tarapacá. Honorary Professor of the Faculty of Medicine of Universidad de Chile

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

I must confess that I was a little reluctant to accept the kind invitation from the Vice Rector of Extension and Communications of the Universidad de Chile to write a brief opinion piece on the importance of creating knowledge in collaboration with the citizenry, and on the unique role that state universities can play in this process.  My reservations originated in the fact that the various opinions regarding this subject are difficult to summarize in a general manner. Therefore, in order to avoid involuntary omissions, I decided to focus on the personal experience I have gained as an academic in Chilean state universities, especially at the Universidad de Chile, Universidad Austral (which is not state-funded, but considered a public institution) and, more recently, at the Universidad de Tarapacá.

It is well known that in Chile most private higher education institutions limit their activity to the delivery and accreditation of knowledge, whereas an important part of state universities combine delivery and accreditation with the construction of knowledge gained through scientific research. Against this background, it seems difficult for me to deny the difference that can exist between giving a lecture based solely on the reading of a book, usually obsolete, and doing it from the observation of the results of experiments, personally designed. Apart from the importance of scientific experience in the quality of teaching, it is fundamental when generating innovative and potentially useful knowledge for a very ample set of possible applications, which can include productive processes, statistical methods, medical procedures, the diffusion of information, climatological and environmental forecasts, and construction of bridges, among many others.

My academic career started when I was appointed to a teaching assistantship for the General Biology course at the Universidad de Chile. Undoubtedly, it was the knowledge and, in general, the excellently trained faculty that quickly sparked my interest in genetic anthropology and biomedical research, an area I have devoted myself to for most of my life. My first research experiences included the separation, under a microscope, of male and female flies, and the visualization, after complicated procedures, of rat chromosomes in the laboratories of the Genetics Department of the Faculty of Medicine. The Genetics Department, together with the other departments in the faculty, formed the Juan Noe Institute of Biology, an important high-level research center in Latin America. However, despite the time my professors dedicated to me, I would later feel inclined towards research on human populations.

It is worth mentioning that the Faculty of Medicine provided its researchers with grants to do scientific investigation, and this support allowed me to accept the invitation of a group of colleagues, including epidemiologists and geneticists, who were investigating the high prevalence of goiter in indigenous communities from Alto Bío Bío. During the fieldwork, which took place in the Pedregoso reduction, I had the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the Pehuenche communities, an experience that was decisive in focusing my scientific career on the construction of knowledge in collaboration with Latin American indigenous peoples.

To continue with my education, the link maintained by the Universidad de Chile with the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the United States allowed me to apply for a scholarship to specialize in human population genetics at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Michigan, making use of a three-year service commission. In my return to Chile, along with Chilean colleagues and a group of American, Bolivian and Ecuadorian researchers, I initiated an extensive investigation on the effects of hypoxia on Aymara inhabitants from the pre-mountain range, and the interior plateau, of Arica. It is important to emphasize that this initial investigation led to different biomedical and bio-anthropological projects, which also generated international research networks that are currently being developed at the Scientific Investigation Institute of the Universidad de Tarapacá.

Without a doubt, working together with other scientists, and side by side with indigenous communities, has been a fundamental part of my scientific experience. Furthermore, the possibility of developing far-reaching projects with them is a contribution to society that is only possible thanks to the principles that underlie research carried out by state universities, whose aim has always been—and must continue being—the production of useful knowledge for the development of the country and its inhabitants.

Unfortunately, during the past few years, the collaboration between Chilean researchers has been partially replaced by a ruthless competition to be granted research projects and to publish scientific work. This race has been encouraged by academic authorities that base their decisions on the application of quantitative measurements. Without a doubt, this practice, which distorts the main objective of science—a focus on quality rather than on quantity—is linked to the lack of resources and the related struggle to obtain adequate state funding for higher education.

To a general lack of a national perspective on behalf of the authorities, we must add a lack of interest in science on the part of entrepreneurs and politicians, and even the citizenry, which distances us from what is happening in other developing countries like China, India and Brazil. Although attempts have been made to change this situation, I dare say that unless scientists themselves are fully aware of and thus properly embrace the social dimension of their work and everything that connects them with the society and with the communities that need them the most, and unless and are capable of massively spreading that sentiment, then they will hardly be in a position to remind citizens of the importance of science, and its economic, technological, educational and cultural potential.

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