Bernabé Santelices: «In science in Chile, Cruch universities are the ones that take the lead»

National Prize of Natural Sciences 2012

This outstanding academic from the Department of Ecology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, was awarded this year with the National Prize for Natural Sciences. The winner has more than 45 years of experience in the area and became the eleventh recipient of the recognition. Apart from his renowned work in the department of Ecology with algae, he is the author of documents on the impact of Ibero-American science and has served as Science and Technology advisor to the Ministry of Economy of Hugo Lavados in the presidency of Bachelet, a member of the Council Higher Education in addition to working at Conicyt, where he was one of the managers of the Fondap and worked in the FONDECYT program.

His key contribution to the development of marine ecology and botany in Chile, and his status as a world expert in the reproduction and dispersal of microalgae, transformed Bernabé Santelices González (66 years old) into the winner of the National Prize for Natural Sciences 2012.

Despite being a man of science from all sides, he does not like to only be dedicated to the laboratory but to intervene from outside how the conditions for doing science can be improved in the country. "Besides that I like doing science, I also like to think about how to improve what we do, not only from a scientific point of view but also from the point of view of how public policy management is administered and see what can be modified" .

How do you see that public policies in science and technology are currently being addressed?- I think there are some things in which the new government has done well and there are others that we are in deficit. There have been decisions that have to do with strengthening some science and technology instruments, it is a good measure, for example, to give more resources to Fondecyt, increasing the number of projects that are approved and having the 50% approved of all that are presented. I think people have given him the confidence to keep presenting his projects and keep doing his thing, which undoubtedly results in a broader and larger spectrum of people working in science.

But on the innovation side there has been a significant reduction in funds, there has not been an increase in funds and there are many initiatives that were very interesting that began between 2007 and 2009 that have died. Everything that was the initiative of the clusters was over and it was important to bring together people who understood a certain discipline and put them to work and make decisions together because there were projects that were started from that. FONDEF has had a significant reduction in its resources or has not increased resources at the expected speed. So, this thing does not look boisterous, it does not look like something that is developing at a great speed and I think that is a mistake because in science and technology, especially when you think in terms of what is needed for the innovation, and that innovation is needed for Chile to become a knowledge society, there is not much time to lose.

In other words, the advances in Chile in terms of Science and Technology are not in line with the speed of the Knowledge Society?
 - Of course, what happens is that a stable science policy is needed, which is very surprising that it does not exist. At this time and in the years to come, science and technology are going to play an important strategic role in the development of a country, which has to do with skills, with the development of new ideas, new companies, new vocations. No country would think of having a strategic component without a medium-term policy behind it, which is not changing every time a new president takes office, that does not happen with science, which is brutality because we need a development program strategic education, science, technology and innovation. This in industrialized countries would not see it as a possibility, it sounds tremendously remote. We have been living like this for a long time.

 In this socio-political context, where and how are the CRUCH universities inserted?
 -Of the universities of the Council of Rectors, six are those that make the 75% of the research published in Chile. More than where and how I insert them, I would tell you that they are the engine of what is being done and everyone knows it, that is, it is the University of Chile, the Catholic University, the Austral University, the University of Santiago, the Universidad de Concepción and the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso. Then, the 25% of publications that are produced in Chile is generated by a nucleus of 10 other universities that are all from CRUCH, with the exception of the Andrés Bello University. This is a very typical aspect of Ibero-America, universities are the ones that make the research strong, companies do not do that. In addition, universities are the ones that produce a high number of patents, at least 30%, and the latest product that universities generously offer to society is the training of cadres of highly trained new scientists and technologists. In science in Chile, the Cruch universities are the ones that take the lead. There is no other place where all this is being done, it may be done but marginally, that some Institute is publishing 20 papers a year, but of the 1,300 that Chile publishes, a 98% is made in the universities of the Council.   

Regarding the training of Advanced Human Capital, you have been a trainer for many generations in Chile. How do you see the insertion of the large number of doctors who will return to Chile in the coming years?
- A problem is anticipated that will be enormous if it is not put in a limit, which will be very ungrateful. We have 800 young people returning to Chile in the next two or three years, where there are a high number of scientists. If we leave the market to solve it, it will not solve it or we will have students driving taxis, as happened once in Spain or returning to the countries where they were trained, because they lack a reception program that will be dedicated to capture them back and insert them in different universities or companies. I think that we are going to lose part of the best students who will prefer to stay abroad, where things are relatively safe and it is a pity because we need the best. This should stop being a topic and begin to be a solution.

If you could solve this insertion problem, what would you do? 
-I advised the Minister of Economy Hugo Lavados when the Becas Chile (of former President Michelle Bachelet) started and we elaborated a proposal, which basically tied the individual back and gave many institutions an opportunity nationals to be able to improve their personnel, with the commitment that people would return to work in that institution for a period of time. But that was no longer done, so let's dream: imagine how many young doctors could benefit if the hospitals or clinics where they are working had access to these scholarships; think of all the people who have to manage land and marine reserve systems by the State (Conaf, the Undersecretariat of Fisheries, the Fisheries Directorate, etc .; think of all the people who work in the Ministry of Agriculture, how they are not going to be perfectible.

How do you see the education crisis in Chile, which has been expressed in a massive and public way in recent years? 
- There are some things that are evident in this country and it strikes me that people who see public policies in this country are not so obvious. My parents gave me all the education they could give me and in that they spared no effort and this was 50 years ago and that has not changed, this is one of the characteristics of this country, that parents remove the dirt for putting the child in a place where he can have a good education and that is where the current debt partly comes from. Consequently, it is somewhat predictable, so it strikes me that public policies at a certain point have not considered this and have allowed this thing to go to the extent that it did. Now there is an interest that is going down, I hope it is approved and that I hope it can continue to go down, but what continues to attract my attention however, where is the quality control? This is an elastic market, as economists say, and when you have that situation you always run the risk that the demand is so great that anything that has something similar to what the product you are trying to achieve will be sold. So it is true that a remarkable number of universities increased, but the quality of many of those things does not compare with others that do things seriously. The quality control that is really key in this matter is incomprehensible that it is not under control.

Do you think that the government has taken over the social demand to make public education more equitable? 
I believe that the different governments that take charge of the development of a country have a list of priorities. This was not a priority list, this exploded. This is as imponderable as the 2010 earthquake was. What strikes me the most is the inability we are having to sit down with those who are ruling with those who are not ruling and reach agreements. Imagine what it cost to get to the tax deal, then it makes me uncomfortable and worried that it will actually take a grueling fight to get to any deal. They cannot tell me that if you sit down with three experts in education, three experts in economics, three experts of different kinds who are mostly experts and not politicians, they will not have a solution for a problem like this. How is it not going to be possible, after the experts give the solution, to put the necessary political pigment on it and negotiate how this is going to be implemented between one side and the other. We have to raise $7000 to the workers and we delay a month in discussion, meanwhile those same neighbors who do not agree, their rent is increased by two million pesos, without having to discuss or think about how expensive it is for them to cost the country. So, we are in a situation that at least for me is not understandable. There is a way of approaching problems that I had not seen in Chile, that I find very unfortunate and that does not lead to analysis and rational solutions, that is what is missing, the rationality of the solutions.