martes, 4 de enero de 2011

Chávez squeezes scientific freedom - Published online 4 January 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/469011a

Chávez squeezes scientific freedom
A string of new laws and a presidential power grab unsettle researchers in Venezuela.

Anna Petherick

Venezuela's beleaguered scientists are facing renewed pressure from their government, which this week assumes control of levies from private companies that represent one of the main sources of research funding in the country. Meanwhile, President Hugo Chávez has gained fresh powers to enact legislation by decree, which some researchers fear he will use to close universities or curtail academic freedom.

These changes were hurried through Venezuela's National Assembly following the national elections on 26 September — when Chávez's party lost its two-thirds majority. The new assembly convenes on 5 January. "There are problems particularly for us in science," says mycologist Gioconda San-Blas, an emeritus professor at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research in Caracas. "First we have a new law for science and technology, then restrictions to the Internet. Now there is a new law relating to universities as well."

The changes to the science and technology law, known as LOCTI, are manifold. Enacted in 2005, LOCTI provided a boost to science funding in Venezuela by requiring larger companies to plough money into research — which could be done either in-house, or at a university or research institute chosen by the company. Today, LOCTI funds amount to 3–4% of Venezuela's gross domestic product (GDP), compared with government science funding of about 0.5% GDP. Although LOCTI funds did not always reach the best public labs, some companies "gave generously to university projects with very good results", says Jaime Requena, a former president of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Caracas, who was dismissed in 2009 after criticizing the government. But "the new version forces all private enterprises to surrender their LOCTI contribution to an office within the Ministry of Science and Technology", he says. "Now the destiny of all collected funds from private sources will be decided by the government according to the 'Socialist Plan for the Nation'."

The amendments also narrow the fields of enquiry that can receive LOCTI funds to just four categories — climate change, energy innovation, building materials and urban development — and enable almost anyone to carry out the research, regardless of their qualifications. "According to the government, everyone can do science," says San-Blas, who worries that science in the country will become less professional as a result. The changes were approved without consultation with the research community.

Other legal changes mean that university budgets will now be controlled by 'communal councils' made up of local citizens, which will also elect university vice-chancellors. A new telecommunications bill mandates Internet providers to censor web pages according to government guidelines, potentially restricting scientists' access to information.

Orlando Albornoz, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela, Caracas, fears that Chávez's augmented presidential powers could be used to close universities that host professors who vocally oppose him. "If he closes down the autonomous universities he may face an ugly fight, but having the power in his hands he will oblige his enemies to negotiate on his terms," he says. "I see more and more control."

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