The Current Situation of Science in Chile: The Need for State University Support

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By Maria Cecilia Hidalgo, Professor of the University of Chile, PHD in Science, Recipient of the National Award for Natural Sciences

Translated by Anthony Rauld

In 2015, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that Chile had to advance towards becoming a knowledge-based society in order to maximize its social and economic development.  In this article, I put forward my vision for how the current situation in relation to science in our country serves to restrict our progress, and how state-owned universities can contribute to the solution of this problem.

Scarce Researchers.   Our country currently has seven times less researchers per million inhabitants than the average of the OECD countries, where researchers are defined as those who create new knowledge and share it via publications.  This dearth of researchers, which is even more serious in the social sciences, the humanities, and in the arts, limits the production of knowledge, lacking the necessary critical mass to generate the knowledge that our country requires in order for us to contribute to its development.  It is therefore urgent and indispensable to implement measures in order to increase the number of scientists who work in Chile.  This would contribute to a more inclusive and equal model of development, not focused solely on economic aspects, since it is essential to be able to generate new knowledge with regards to social and cultural aspects, allowing us to eliminate the considerable economic and social inequality that our country exhibits.

A logical and effective way to increase our small scientific community would be to incorporate those scientists formed in the country and recover those that have left the country to perfect themselves abroad, and whom are financed by programs like Becas Chile (Chile Scholarships).  Although this program has made it possible for many young Chileans to enjoy opportunities abroad to complete their postgraduate studies in prestigious universities, a parallel program like Reinsertion Chile, capable of reincorporating scholarship recipients into the country, was not considered.  As a consequence, we are losing, and run the risk of continuing to lose, an entire generation of talented students who have excellent training, and who we need urgently in order to propel our development.  The state-owned universities combined could play a decisive role in the incorporation of young scientists, trained in Chile as well as abroad, especially if the new state university law contemplates the creation of the Council for Coordination.  The insertion of new researchers into this network by way of a well-designed reinsertion program would allow for the broadening and sharing of scientific activity in order to generate new knowledge, and encourage innovation.

The Under-Appreciation of Creative Scientific Practices.  In my opinion, as a society we do not value the activities that are important for us to achieve development, because we end up under-appreciating our scientists, our educators, and our technical experts.  We know that making quality education, preferably public education, accessible to our population is a proven method to achieve the cultural, social, and economic equality of our people, and this also propels the development of future talent in the sciences.  If we do not change this paradigm, it will be difficult to count on both the professors that we need in order to train our future researchers, and the people with quality training that are essential for the effective technical support needed for the production of knowledge.

Lack of Economic and Institutional Support for Creative Scientific Practices.  There is a general consensus that all developed countries, with no exceptions, are characterized by their strong support for science, and when I talk about science, I include all of the disciplines that create new knowledge.  Our country, which has a solid tradition of scientific research centered primarily in a few of its universities, has advanced significantly in the last 30 years despite the dearth of public and private financial support, and despite having a small number of national researchers.  The quality and international impact of Chilean academic journals, which stand out in comparison to those of other Latin American countries, led to a special mention by Nature Index’s Rising Stars 2016, which singled out Chile as one of 10 countries in the world, and the only country in the Americas, that displayed a notable advance in its scientific development—primarily in astronomy and, to a lesser extent, biological sciences—despite having low levels of investment in science, technology and innovation.

Despite this, the development of science and technology is today facing a profound crisis, due to a harmful national, economistic science policy, which lacks vision and has been incapable of promoting the development of science and ensuring that the knowledge generated by our scientists can really have an impact, and contribute to the development of the country.  This ideology, which has benefited applied science to the detriment of pure science, omits the important and beneficial effects that science can have on society in terms of education, culture, and innovation.  To underestimate science’s role in the development of the country is disastrous, since it weakens us as a creative country, wasting talent and opportunities to apply our knowledge in order to achieve the integral development that we desire.

Chile’s current investment rates in science, technology, and innovation, which approach 0.38% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are way below the rates of the other countries of the OECD, which are on average higher than 2%, and are in fact below those of other countries in Latin America, like Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.  Furthermore, the institutional structure of science in Chile is somewhat fragmented, and this produces a massive dispersion of the public funds that are allocated for research and development.  As a result, a new institutional structure is urgently needed, a system that can represent the interests of scientists when decisions are made with regards to the development of science in the country.  The President of the Republic, Michelle Bachelet, announced the creation of a Ministry of Science and Technology in January of 2016.  The scientific community hopes that the creation of this ministry, which also incorporates innovation based on scientific knowledge, can help solve the urgent problems that I have mentioned in this article; having said that, there is concern that this ministry will become just another state institution, with limited capability, and with scarce resources.

The Invisibility of Scientific Activity.  Finally, another challenge we face is that, because scientists in Chile are few, it is difficult to carry out our work when as a community we are in debt to our society.  We have to explain and convince the population that the production of knowledge is key to securing our development.  Consequently, we have to respond convincingly and clearly to the question: why is doing science important for Chile?  The state-owned universities have an important role to play in this context, especially if the proposed Council for Coordination materializes, since they have demonstrated, despite the limitations of the system, that they are capable of generating research knowledge applicable to the development of the country and to the well-being of its inhabitants.

The role of science cannot limit itself to the current development model, which seeks only to strengthen technology and innovation in order to improve the natural resource productivity of the export sector, as well as other strategic areas of the economy.  On the contrary, we must encourage a wider concept of scientific development that can help foment research motivated by curiosity and application, in all disciplines, with ample resources, and with a long-term vision.  In this way, we can transform our current development model into a model that can ensure the well-being, education, and health of all of our inhabitants, and can generate solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.  We have the essential: a community of scientists who are well prepared, active, and connected to the world; they are committed to their work, and they want to work in Chile to generate new knowledge that can tackle the multiple challenges we face as a country, and as the inhabitants of this planet.  The country must support its scientists if we want Chile to be a developed country.  If the current political situation does not radically change, if state and private support for science does not increase significantly, including strong support for the production of knowledge within the state universities across the country, then we run the risk of losing everything we have accomplished in these last three decades.  In particular, we run the risk of losing an entire generation of researchers who have spent their lives preparing inside the country, as well as abroad.

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