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Interview

Eric Goles Chacc: Brazil, a strategic partner

Currently what is the percentage of investment in S&T in Chile?
In Chile during 1999 the portion of resources put into S&T was 0.6% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Today it’s 0.7%. President Ricardo Lagos has promised to get it up to 1.2% by the year 2006. To reach 1.2% means going from US$ 500 million in 1999 to US$ 1.3 billion in 2006. The crucial item in this context is to make the private and entrepreneurial sectors play their parts, not only public resources. But this is not easy. A good part of the effort to reach the 1.2% will have to be, at least in this first phase, a public effort. We need to encourage a cultural change in the private sector. We know that the developed countries have a participation of 50% to 60% of private investments in S&T. In Chile, we have to look at things from another point of view.

We need to make our young people acquire an entrepreneurial spirit that will lead them to start up companies. Venture capital in Chile is just beginning. A state organism already exists that is doing this and there are a few other venture capital institutions. However our youth graduates and afterwards looks for work. We are not only speaking about creating centers of excellence, we must as well have a good system spread throughout the country, with a large number of doctorate and masters scholarships, with contested individual science projects, with global projects and support academic structure of the universities. Or that is to say, we have to create a mechanism that contains various tools. And this group of actions has to flow together, if not any investment will be money thrown away.

What is the strategic importance of scientific and technical cooperation for the Latin American countries?
Chile’s government has made it clear that we need to reinforce our collaboration in the regional scientific and technological environment. Latin America has very little responsibility over what is happening today in S&T in the world. We participate in few conversations on diverse environments, and on our own we will pertain nothing. We need to unite, which implies the necessity of bilateral and multilateral contacts. We are associating ourselves with diverse countries with the target cooperation. With Brazil, Chile has multiple agreements, in particular with the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), but also with FAPESP and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

How are the agreements with FAPESP coming along?
The agreements with FAPESP are wide. We are in conversation so that, in some manner, we can complement our initiatives in the area of genomics. In Chile, some six or seven months ago, we created a program in this sector, the Chile Genome, through which we are sequencing bio-lixiviating bacteria that assist in the production of a cleaner and more economic copper. Also we are carrying out a vegetal genome. There are a series of viruses that we would like to study. Another important point: Chile is a huge exporter of fruit, in such a manner that this type of investigation is very important.

We are investing in biology and in genomics to obtain improvements in the production of fruit and food and to guarantee greater competitiveness in the external market. Also we are very close to becoming the biggest world producer of salmon. Nonetheless, diseases have appeared in our salmon. We have already sequenced the gene of one of the bacteria that attacks our production. We have come to know that, parallel to this, groups linked to FAPESP are making annotations of many organisms and accumulating more experience in genomics.

Furthermore, these groups are making use of well equipped and laboratories to which we could associate ourselves. With Brazil, and in particular with São Paulo and FAPESP, we could have a very interesting adventure. For example, in the case of copper, the understanding could take the form of a consortium in which would participate scientists, State organizations and companies linked to the sector of copper. We would like to arrive at something very concrete in terms of collaboration in the area of bio-information technology during this year.

Minister Ronaldo Sardenberg was recently in Chile together with president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Were any agreements signed?
Some partnerships were discussed. We signed a memorandum of an understanding between Brazil and Chile in the city of Arica, which gives a new political signal of integration between the two countries. For example, Chile is going to begin to participate in the Plataforma Lattes project, of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development and adopt it into our national system. Something else that is very important is that in Chile, in spite of our growing number of doctorate scholarships, we are forming 100 doctors per year. This number needs to grow. For example, Brazil is forming something around 3,000 doctors per year, something marvelous. Our goal is to facilitate the mobility of doctors between Brazil and Chile. We need to work together in this direction.

Therefore Brazil is a strategic partner for the development of S&T in Chile?
For more or less twenty five years we have maintained agreements with Brazil through which scientific and technological groups from both countries have been in collaboration together. In Chile, as in Brazil, we are investing in Centers of Excellence. We already have ten centers that are research nuclei in a specific discipline and with quality recognized by institutions such as the National Science Foundation, etc.

We are investing a lot of money so that in ten years time they can have converted themselves into worldwide references in areas such as astronomy and astrophysics, mathematics, cellular biology, ecology, oceanography, biomedicine and materials science. Each one of these areas is associated to centers for doctorate formation. We want to create a network of Centers of Excellence where the circulation of researchers will be made easy and we need that these centers team up with other similar organizations in the other Latin America countries, above all with Brazil.

How do you yourself evaluate the Alcue proposals drawn up in the Brasilia Declaration?
There is clear political intention: we want to and we are going to have a relationship with the European Union. We want them to recognize us as an important part of science and technology. As well as this, both Brazil and Chile have very good bilateral relationships with European countries. Chile has a fist class relationship with France in S&T. We want to move on to have multi-lateral relationships. We have the capacity to set up a complementary program to our own in Europe or in those areas that are at a higher level. We have to look to Europe, not with a look of a younger brother, but of that of an equal. An example is in astronomy.

The Chilean sky, for natural reasons, is the best in the southern hemisphere for astronomy research. The United States understands this by way of the National Science Foundation. I would like that this would be understood in the same manner by the European countries. We could graduate more astronomers and gain ground in pure science. The political part is completed. What we need now is to develop specific tools for this new mode of relationship. However, I have the impression that the European Union has not matured to the idea that for them cooperation with Latin America is important.

What is your expectation in relation to the results of the Alcue Conference and of the proposals in the Brasilia Declaration?
I am only going to become convinced of the success of this bilateral relationship between the two blocks when we have specific tools to finance science and technology. This process that is being promoted by the Alcue Conference could be a little faster. It is not good for the world that we have in Latin America lots of countries in which the notion of carrying out science and technology is still in its infancy. Today, education and knowledge is a crucial variable to guarantee the identity of a country. Brazil, Chile and Mexico understand this. I should like as well that the European Community also understand this point.

Eric Goles Chacc is President of Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Investigation (Conicyt)

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