A new science law in Venezuela says that research will now be done for the people and in part by the people, and no longer to benefit those "in white coats." However, scientists fear the changes could hinder progress across many fields.
The new rules, approved last week by the National Assembly to take effect on 1 January, would establish government control over a large pool of tax money previously spent by companies on internal research projects, or via collaborations with universities.
Venezuelan scientists have weathered tough years under socialist president Hugo Chávez. (Science, 29 May 2009, p. 1126). But the surprise move by the assembly "might very well mean the end of science in the country" charges Jaime Requena, a biologist who was stripped of his position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Caracas last year following a dispute with the government.
Venezuela's Organic Law on Science, Technology and Innovation, last updated in 2005, included an R&D tax on industries that had raised science and technology spending to around 2.7% of GDP, according to government figures (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 537)
Elia García, a toxicologist and dean at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, told El Universal newspaper that the original law had created an "extraordinary" flowering of Venezuelan science. "The law created a huge change. Almost all professors began to develop new projects," she said.
Under the new law, however, the money from the tax will now be under direct control of the government. "Before it was companies who decided how to spend the money, now it is the government," says García. "That is the crucial change." She sees the future of Venezuelan science as "totally dark."
Ricardo Menéndez, the country's science minister, said the change was necessary because 95% of funds since 2007 had been spent by companies on internal projects that were "disengaged from social realities." He says "the law intends to stimulate a model of scientific research in the fundamental interest of the Venezuelan people, and not the specific needs of various private companies." In rewriting the law, Venezuela set research priorities in four areas, including innovation in building materials, urban development, energy and climate change.
The law takes some digs at the country's scientific elites, viewed as hostile to the government. For instance, the Researcher Promotion funding program is being renamed Stimulus for Research because "the central goal of research isn't its author [or] the person, but the concrete outcome," Menéndez said.
In addition, Menéndez said, funding will now be allocated based on "real results" and not scientific papers. The law opens research funding to the public, as well as to social and indigenous organizations. Menéndez praised one community project carried out in the state of Yaracuy that studied "how nutrition influences the growth of children" by measuring children eating different diets. "The moment of useful science has arrived," said the science minister.
Scientists have managed to block previous proposed changes to the science law, but this time the assembly acted "without consultation with scientific and academic entities or experts" Requena says. He fears that all research will now have to pass through a "socialist filter."