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Colombian biologist Jean Paul Delgado dropped plans to sequence the genome of Bolitoglossa ramosi, a native salamander that can regenerate lost limbs, because of burdensome regulations.

Andrea Gómez/Genetics, Regeneration and Cancer Group at the University of Antioquia

In Colombia, biodiversity researchers seek relief from regulatory red tape

MEDELLÍN, COLOMBIA—In 2011, when biologist Jean Paul Delgado set up his laboratory at the University of Antioquia (UdeA) here, he was eager to help his home nation learn more about its extraordinary biological wealth, including some 800 species of salamanders, frogs, and other amphibians. Delgado’s enthusiasm soon turned to frustration, however, and he’s largely abandoned his efforts to study Colombia’s biodiversity.

Sitting in his office recently, he displayed the reason: a huge folder stuffed with the paperwork needed to get government permission to collect native species or just sample their DNA. It can take a year or more to obtain approval from Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, Delgado says. And, “If you deviate from the contract, there will be consequences” that could include fines and research restrictions.

Many Colombian researchers say the cumbersome, stressful process has prompted them to give up on studies involving the nation’s more than 62,000 native species. Delgado, for example, is no longer planning to sequence the genome of Colombian salamander Bolitoglossa ramosi, which regenerates lost limbs. And UdeA chemist Alejandro Martínez dropped his effort to extract useful chemical compounds from marine sponges found along the nation’s Caribbean coast. “My scientific productivity was sadly affected,” Martínez says.

Such setbacks, however, moved Delgado to action. Two years ago, he launched a campaign to persuade the government to reform the permit process. Now, after traveling the nation to forge alliances with university leaders and elected officials, Delgado is cautiously optimistic that this could be the year his efforts produce results. One reason for hope: President Iván Duque Márquez, who took office in August 2018, has made biodiversity preservation a “matter of national security,” and signed off on creating the nation’s first science ministry. “The creation of the ministry is an opportunity to make slow processes faster,” says Iván Darío Agudelo Zapata, a member of Colombia’s Senate who championed the creation of the ministry.

The problem, researchers argue, is that there were unintended consequences from Colombia’s implementation of international agreements, such as the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, designed to give nations greater control over their biologial wealth. In general, those pacts require researchers to explain how they plan to collect and study organisms, and aim to ensure that the nations where those organisms originated share in any profits from valuable discoveries. The rules aren’t supposed to hamper research, but there is often “a lack of understanding of the basis and intentions of international treaties … by the national-level bureaucrats,” says Kamaljit Bawa, a conservation biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has written about the issue.

In Colombia, the result has been red tape that is unecessarily strangling studies, researchers argue. Under current rules, for instance, scientists at Colombian universities need a permit even if they just want to sequence ubiquitous lab organisms such as yeast or fruit flies found within the nation’s borders, notes microbiologist Javier Correa Álvarez of EAFIT, a private research university here. And despite help from his university’s three full-time lawyers, Correa says it recently took him a year to obtain a permit for a field study, “and a year is an eternity in our field.”

In order to streamline biodiversity research, the lobby effort is urging the government to end contracts on genetic access, to ease sampling restrictions, and to make the permit process quicker and easier. Such changes “would take a lot of stress and pain away,” Delgado says. Reformers are also thinking about asking the government to grant an amnesty to scientists who have already run afoul of the rules. (It is not clear how many there are; Colombian researchers are reluctant to discuss the matter, and the environment ministry did not respond to an inquiry about how often it has sanctioned scientists.)

Change could require action by both Colombia’s Congress and executive branch. But the reformers are hopeful that the country’s increasingly science-friendly political climate, and the creation of the new science ministry, will produce action by the end of this year. “For the first time,” Agudelo notes, “science has a seat in the president’s Cabinet.”