Pablo Astudillo Besnier. In 2010, investment in research was only 0.5% of the Chilean GDP. A campaign group, made up of doctoral researchers, is putting pressure on government to change its policies
Science has been widely recognised as a path to social and economic development. Despite the universality of this assumption, the discussion around how to develop effective science policies, seems an issue mistakenly reserved only for 'big countries'.
Chile is a small country debating just how much research and development (R&D) should matter. We're in a good position in terms of scientific research, ranking 21st in the world (1st in South America) in terms of citations per article (in countries with more than 20,000 documents in the period between 1996-2010). But despite these impressive figures, In 2012, investment in R&D was only 0.5% of the GDP. And while Chile may now be a member of the OECD, we have no Ministry for Science and our research spending pales in comparison to the OECD average.
In response, the scientific community came together to protest in 2007 and 2010 and to raise awareness of the low investment in R&D, the lack of a national plan for R&D (the last one was promulgated in 1988), and the urgent need for a new governance on research.
The advocacy group, Más Ciencia para Chile (More Science for Chile), was formed at the end of 2010 and close to 20 science students, postdoctoral researchers and journalists now work on the issues outlined above, as well as the promotion of better public attitudes to science and science communication. Some of us knew each other before hand; others joined along the way.
We started with an online petition, targeting both asking citizens and scientists. To date, we've had 2,600 signatures. In August 2011, we gathered politicians, scientists, journalists, graduate students, and relevant experts in the field, in the Chilean parliament. The conference was themed "Towards a public institution for the development of science in Chile" and its main aim was to talk with the Commission on Science and Technology in the House of Deputies.
This first experience was, undoubtedly, an 'initiation ritual' and a success in its own right. Although the government has been reluctant to consider our proposals (though they have been well received by some members of the Chilean Parliament), the need for a "More Science for Chile" campaign has became clear and we continue to make our case in the media. More letters, blogs and articles debating these issues are now being published than even before. In April of this year we published a letter in the magazine Science and we continue to stimulate debate in round table discussions and seminars. The movement has strengthened.
Still, looking back at what has been achieved to date, it is fair to say we could have done better in some aspects of our campaign. We have had limited success in actively engaging local media and an significant part of the scientific community is still reluctant to participate in this debate - though this might be due in part to cultural traits.
Next year Chilean presidential campaigns begin and will be a good opportunity to evaluate the impact of our initiatives. The promotion of the scientific research has never been a theme in previous elections, but the engagement of the scientific and academic community, after our work began, can hopefully change this. But change takes time. Political will is needed but engaging politicians in debate is as difficult - in Chile as it in anywhere else in the world. Likewise, more scientists need to step up and participate.
Nonetheless, initiatives such as More Science for Chile (or indeed Science is Vital in UK) can still transform the way in which scientists and the political world interact and exchange information and ideas. And with continuous budget cuts or inadequate science policies now commonplace the world over, science policy could well be a new and fertile ground for young scientists to explore.
Pablo Astudillo Besnier is part of the
More Science for Chile coordination team. He is an engineer in molecular biotechnology at the University of Chile, and a PhD student in biological sciences at the Catholic University of Chile.
Editor's note: A
rebuttal letter from the president of National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) has also been published in Science.