Science and technology in Chile

The influence of government, private investment, and professional talent lend prestige to scientific work in Chile

Thursday, July 30, 2009  
Especialistas comprometidos (Photo:Laboratorio Bagó)

A research study led by two Chilean women received significant attention in early 2009 for their advances.  Their most recent collaboration focused on improving the treatment options for children that suffer from a rare and deadly degenerative condition named Niemann-Pick Type C.

After publishing the results in a highly regarded global journal, the researchers, Álvarez and Zanlungo, have professed a new objective: to develop treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease in their research facilities in Santiago. These women prove that, in Chile, such scientific potential exists.

Álvarez and Zanlungo’s expanded vision is more than just wishful thinking.  Other recent projects support this culture of scientific and medical progress.  Such research includes advances in healing skin burns, cancer diagnosis and treatment, and melanoma vaccines.

At the same time, the Chilean researcher Pablo Valenzuela has made tremendous contributions by developing a hepatitis-B vaccine and discovering the hepatitis-C virus.  He has also headed an international team that clones and sequences the HIV genome.  Other notable advances include creating insulin from yeast cultures for diabetics.

The contributions made by Valenzuela were recognized in his receipt of the National Applied Science Award in 2002.  The most recent recipient of this award was Miguel Aguilera for his contributions to gastronomic engineering and functional food research, including enriched milk, probiotics, and antioxidants.

Seismologist Edgar Kausel also received this award for his development of a set of standards, guidelines, and regulations of Chilean building design.  The impact of his work has been huge in the sense that it allows one of the most seismically active countries in the world much more latitude in construction.  As a result, more ambitious projects can be safely built in a country that, in 1960, suffered the most powerful earthquake recorded history in Valdivia.  The earthquake registered an estimated 9.5 on the Richter scale.

Another award that is similar to the one discussed above is the Exact Science National Awards.  Two of its past recipients, Miguel Kiwi and Rafael Benguria, made important advancements in different areas.  Miguel Kiwi was recognized for his research in solid physics and what is known as Exchange Bias Theory.  Rafael Benguria is often noted for his publications in the journal Annals of Mathematics, as well as, discoveries for how vibration can determine the geometric properties of objects and matter.

Challenge

The influence of government, private investment, and professional talent lend prestige to scientific work in Chile. An important objective of the Chilean economy is to evolve from a production and natural resource export model to a model that integrates competitive advantages through its own technological advances.  To reach this goal, it is essential to promote entrepreneurship and innovation.

The investment by large corporations in human capital supports this development process in both academic and industrial contexts.  The economy and society continues to benefit from this investment in the long-term as it achieves higher levels of development.

The Chilean government agrees with this argument and has defined the support of science, technologies, and innovation as key tasks.  For example, it has more than doubled public investment in these areas from $240 million in 2005 to $525 million in 2009.

In 2010 – Chile’s bicentennial – the country plans to have completed 17 world class research centers throughout the country.  This includes Fraunhofer German Research Center, which will contribute in the development of renewable energy, nano and biotechnologies, and agriculture.

Also in 2010, according to a document published by Science and Organization History, 27 technological and business consortiums will have been created, which will include a $9.5 million investment in scientific equipment.

Governmental support

Through a well-defined policy of scientific support, various government agencies have been increasing their financial support of both students and specific projects.  The policy has extended to other areas where joint programs have grown in both size and complexity.  Furthermore, the government is investigating different tax incentive schemes to promote private investment as well as research & development.

The National Scientific and Technological Investigation Commission (Conicyt) is an important part of this process.  This governmental institution has supported the development of human capital and excellence in research for over 40 years in areas that have a high impact on domestic growth.

Conicyt also has a program that targets students pursuing postgraduate degrees in Chile and abroad, as well as, funds available for ground level research.  Between 2006 and 2009, funding increased 120% for the development of the National System of Science, Technology, and Innovation.   In 2009, the institution provided more than $250 million in research funding. 

Other funds for science and technology have also increased 54% since 2005, while investment in training and education has increase almost fivefold to $93 million.

After assuming the presidency, Michelle Bachelet turned to the National Innovation and Competitiveness Advisory Board to design a national strategy.  Together with her administration, the board mapped 11 of the most productive sectors and clusters where opportunities are expected to emerge over the coming decade.

The group also defined a strategy for human, business innovation, and science capital in order to “to accomplish tasks on time and in harmony, having as clear objective how the private sector can maximize its potential."

Another government body, the National Congress, has been discussing the formation of a new institution linked to both innovation and law.  One of its objectives would be separate the availability of resources from Chile’s annual budget.

A third crucial part of the national effort is the government economic development agency known as Corfo.  The agency includes over 50 different types of support for projects in Chile, as well as, in other parts of the world.

At the beginning of 2009, while celebrating its 70th anniversary, Corfo announced the disbursement of $700 million in credits and subsidiaries.  This includes support of over 80,000 companies, as well as, $200 million in venture capital funding.