Colombia: barriers to scientific cooperation remain

Botanist warns of continuing political instability and restrictive legislation on science

December 16, 2017
Colombian protester
Source: Getty
Tough going: scientists in Colombia need to overcome many hurdles to research partnership

Political instability, language issues and restrictive legislation on science remain barriers to research collaborations with Colombia, a botanist has warned.

The signing of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) has raised hopes of increased scientific partnership between Western academics and the South American country.

But Mauricio Diazgranados, the Colombian-born research leader for diversity and livelihoods at Kew Gardens, told an event titled “Doing Science with Colombia” that scientists in his homeland faced problems such as political instability, tensions between institutions, “inequality which can generate violence” and governance issues where the state has not really taken power from the guerrillas.

They also had to deal with “legislation which does not always keep up with the development of science” (and can therefore, for example, restrict access to genomic material); language issues, when efforts to reduce inequality required one to work in regions where few people are capable of publishing in English; and even “different concepts of time” which often lead to delays in international projects.

If this wasn’t enough, Dr Diazgranados pointed to “a big deficit of permanent positions for PhDs in Colombia”, which meant that the researchers who wanted to make a decent living either had to become administrators or “cross their fingers and wait for someone to die”. Although it was essential to acknowledge and face up to these obstacles head on, he added, he remained “optimistic we can overcome the challenges”.

Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, a researcher in chemistry at the University of Oxford, told the same event, held at London’s Natural History Museum, of her regrets that there was not enough stress on scientific infrastructure in Colombia. “Every time there’s a sports event we build more stadia, but we don’t use partnerships to create new institutes,” she said.

However, the event also heard of significant opportunities opening up for Western researchers.

Nestor Osorio, the ambassador of Colombia to the UK, spoke of opportunities for the two countries working together in areas such as “cataloguing biodiversity – something previously unexplored due to armed conflict but which is crucial in the building the biotech industry”.

Cesar Ocampo, head of the Colombian funding body Colciencias, described a number of priority areas where they were looking for outside support. These included “sustainably developed prototype communities” in areas that used to be controlled by guerrillas, and “a constellation of microsatellites”, covering the equatorial rather than polar regions of the earth, which could “monitor water resources, deforestation or illegal mining, and complement sensors on the ground to promote precision agriculture”. Yet he also stressed the need to turn innovations into practical solutions: “We have the science and technology to map large movements of land, to anticipate avalanches and changes in river beds, but no businesses to protect vulnerable populations from landslides.”

Representatives of British funding agencies and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy described mechanisms for harnessing the potential for collaboration. John Bramwell, senior higher education adviser at the British Council, spoke of the need to bring in expertise from the social as well as hard sciences: “Scientists responded rapidly to the outbreak of Zika virus, but not to social issues such as 70 per cent of men walking out on pregnant women who had been infected with the virus.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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