Funding science in Chile

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If five months ago you asked me to name the three things that I knew Chile by I would have said: military coup and camps, Isabel Allende and wine. In this order!

Visiting a winery

Visiting a winery

Then, at the end of 2012 I was invited to take part in the evaluation of the research funding programmes of CONICYT: the closest thing Chile has to a research council and without doubt one of the main public funders of research in the country. To my delight there was also a ‘cite visit’ which meant that I finally visited Chile – a dream harboured for many years.

This visit allowed me to expand my knowledge about Chile beyond the three facts mentioned above to include annual economic growth of over 5% (which in Europe is currently a level beyond our wildest aspirations), predominantly primary economy (nice lapis lazuli, silver, copper and other rare minerals), visible inequality, leading edge astronomy, well know mathematics, wonderful, warm people, safe streets and amazing writing (after all Chile has two Nobel Prizes for literature).

Pablo Neruda's house

Pablo Neruda’s house

More to the point, Chile is one of the few countries in the world that has been consistently increasing the public funding for research and is looking to increase it even further. It is interesting to note, for instance, that the funding of FONDECYT (National Fund for Scientific and Technological Research), the main programme for supporting the science base in Chile, has increased over twofold between 2007 and 2012 (from $71 million to over $160 million).

This is in a considered national effort to move away from its economy based on primary industry to being a knowledge based society with thriving innovation and creativity. Considerable proportion of FONDECYT is invested in developing the new generations of Chilean researchers; many young researchers are funded to continue their education abroad (at Masters and PhD) level.

Further, FONDECYT is only one, albeit the largest, of the programmes of CONICYT; the council also supports FONDEF (Fund for the Promotion of Scientific and technological Development); FONDAP (Fund for Research Centres of Excellence in Priority Areas); and PIA (Associative Research Programme).

If you are interested in more detail about the operating principles and pitfalls of these programmes you may read the evaluation report by following this link. I will only mention a number of things I noticed (in no order of importance):

  • As in many ‘catching up’ countries, education in Chile is seen as a means for social mobility and has become a ‘premium good’. Simply put, this means that education at all levels is very expensive; which exacerbates the social inequality visible in the country.
  • Chile is training many young scientists and academics at the moment; most of them are abroad. It is always possible that the research infrastructure developed within the country lags behind the capacity embodied in people. This means that it is a possibility that five years from now Chile has a large number of highly qualified, under-employed scientists. Which as investments go is probably not a very good one!
  • I am always bowed over and intrigued by Catholic education; some of the top universities (and colleges) around the world are Catholic. Until I went to Chile, I didn’t recognise that this means they are directly supported by the Vatican and that the chief officers of the university are appointed by the Pope.

I’ll leave you now with this example of mathematicians’ humour; this picture was taken at the department of mathematics.

Most people misunderstand this equation

Most people misunderstand this equation

Oh, and when you read the report, please ignore the pictures – many who will read this know that I am better and less serious looking.