Thousands of researchers protested on 12 November to demand stronger science institutions and better working conditions.

Thousands of researchers protested on 12 November to demand stronger science institutions and better working conditions.

Fernando Valiente, + Ciencia para Chile

Chilean scientists protest poor working conditions

Frustrated scientists in Chile have taken to the streets to protest against low research spending, frail science institutions, poor career prospects—and what they see as the government's overall disregard for science.

The protests culminated on 12 November when about 2500 researchers, technicians, and students marched to La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, according to Chilean daily La Tercera, to deliver an open letter expressing their “desolation.”

The government has “ignored the voice” of scientists in Chile and abroad, and its decisions “will plunge the country into ignorance and poverty,” the letter says. Its several thousand signatories demand that the government set up a science ministry and promote science as a part of the “national culture.”

“We are one of the richest countries in the region,” thanks to copper, salmon, and wine exports, says Verónica Eisner, a biologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, who took part in the protests. But the copper bounty won't last forever, she says: Chile “needs a long-term vision.”

Chile’s main research funding agency—the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT)—is part of the ministry of education. The previous administration promised to create a separate science ministry and even issued a draft law last year to set it up—but the plans have so far gone nowhere, says Pablo Astudillo, who in 2010 co-founded the campaign More Science for Chile.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Chile spent only 0.36% of its gross domestic product on R&D in 2012, compared with 0.58% in neighboring Argentina and 1.15% in Brazil. But beyond more funding, scientists want more consideration for their work—including for basic research without immediate or visible commercial benefits, says Astudillo, a biologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

A critical issue for scientists in Chile is poor career prospects that appear set to worsen. In 2008, Chile’s government launched an ambitious program to support Ph.D. studies and postdocs abroad, with the requirement that grantees return to Chile for several years after their stint abroad. But many young researchers have returned with no job prospects in sight, Eisner and Astudillo say.

And competition for entry level scientific positions will only increase. According to a paper published last year in the Journal of Technology Management & Innovation, Chile will almost double the number of its Ph.D. holders from about 4500 in 2012 to about 8500 in 2018.

The scientists' anger mounted when CONICYT President Francisco Brieva stepped down at the end of October after only 13 months in office. His predecessor departed under similar circumstances, leaving the position open for months. “[Brieva’s] resignation is a symbol of the stagnation and instability” affecting Chilean science, Astudillo says.

“If we don't do science today, we will keep exporting sticks and rocks,” Natalia Muñoz, a representative of Science with a Contract, a group advocating for better working conditions for young scientists and lab technicians, said outside La Moneda. Chile’s cabinet-level administrative office, the Ministry General Secretariat of Government, did not respond to requests for comment.