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Science and Technology Policy in Colombia: Securing Human Happiness?

Political theorist Yaron Ezrahi observes that “attempts to fuse an instrumental concept of politics with a political commitment to a humanistic conception of freedom” have marked the political tradition of the West since Machiavelli’s publications in the early 16th century. He further notes that the capacity for knowledge and technique – to both orchestrate and validate political action – has become commonplace in the West, especially given “liberal-democratic notions of authority, accountability, and order…” These notions, he believes, allow for “independent political rationales for the uses of knowledge, or claims of knowledge, in public affairs.” But such developments, although certainly evincible through the annals of history, have not simply proceeded without any pushback. The skepticism that has accompanied what Ezrahi calls the “use of science to rationalize public action and secure human happiness,” is in fact common amongst such diverse thinkers as Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx.

Yet, as many nations today seek to develop further and to use science in order to “secure human happiness,” we might well ask if the significance of knowledge and technique to which Ezrahi refers has changed. Does it all still boil down to knowledge? Whatever the case, there may be new reasons yet for humanity to sustain its age-old skeptical bent. But where to look to test the hypothesis? Consider the novel case of Colombia and how relatively recent politics and policy making might color this question for perhaps a contentiously, if not, self-proclaimed, “liberal democracy.”

A kind of historical treatment of Colombia’s science and technology policy indicates that the country lags behind other Latin American states, especially the scientific powerhouses (i.e., Brazil, Chile, and Argentina). That being said, policy changes in and of themselves yet remain a constant in Colombia’s unfurling socio-political system of science and technology. And these changes have been largely unsuccessful in improving such key elements as the overall quality and impact of critical elements like research communication or commercialization.

A medium-sized Latin American country of almost 50 million inhabitants, Colombia invests comparatively little of its total gross domestic product (GDP) in science and technology. In fact, when compared to the Latin American and Caribbean regional average GDP expenditures (from 2000 to 2011) indicate that the Colombian state invested in research and development only a fraction of a percent of its overall GDP. Even so, the country still promotes science and technology activities through its National System of Science, Technology and Innovation (NSSTI), which has been in operation for more than two decades, and which government policy explicitly helped to create. And Colombia has faced difficulties when developing technical or scientific capacities, which includes institutional and infrastructural deficiencies.

A disparity in the supply of knowledge and products that espouse innovation has emerged, and some of Colombia’s socio-political issues – which date back to the early 20th century – continue to hinder NSSTI goals. In fact, a few researchers go so far as to argue that a multilevel perspective of socio-technical systems of innovation (SI) in Colombia reveals little is known of the development of science and technology, its system, or how it works. On a related note, treatments of science and technology in Latin America have typically involved the policies that governments might adopt to encourage science within the state—although importing and implementing foreign models that exclude regional characteristics can result in missed opportunities for strong actions and concrete applications that might otherwise advance science and technology best. And Colombia, when compared to the rest of the states in the region, hardly seems any different.

Internally speaking, the creation of Colciencias – Colombia’s administrative department for science and innovation – and the Observatory for Science and Technology (OST/OCyT) is paramount to considerations given to science and technology policy in Colombia. Moreover, it is important to consider how different multilateral organizations – namely the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) – have been so central to the implementation of Colombia’s policies governing science and technology. The Network for Science and Technology for Iberoamerica and Interamerica (RICYT), and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ELAC/CEPAL), have also provided technical assistance and conceptual frameworks to Colombia in recent years. But does such funding genuinely indicate a push to “secure human happiness” through furthering scientific and technological developments?

With external assistance, Colombia has undergone three institutional development stages in the hopes of fostering scientific and technological development. The first stage spanned 1968 to 1989. During this time, Colombia focused on the formation of human resources and research groups, and some scientists received training. In a second stage, from 1990 to 1999, Colombia applied policy regarding science and technology that gave rise to its NSSTI. An important compromise took place during this period and involved Colombia’s central government; it encouraged the formation and support of industry, academia, and the public sector—all with regards to science, technology and innovation. Third, and perhaps most recent, is the phase from 2000 to present. Colombia has sought to consolidate the development of its economic and productive sectors in accordance with goals and plans contained in the language used to define its NSSTI. As a result, the country adopted a strong legal and political charter that has greatly promoted the construction and development of science, technology and innovation within its borders.

The socio-technical configuration of Colombia’s NSSTI reveals not only the bureaucratic frame for policy governing science and technology but also the emerging areas of opportunity where Colombia has a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, outside markets and political conditions can pressure institutions, and stresses can disrupt competitiveness in more mature systems. For example, Colombia’s biodiversity is a cornerstone of manifold global discussions on Colombia, which is easily one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries. And although it has gained much knowledge and expertise in the biodiversity sector, and despite its niches of opportunity having greater maturity than its other systems, Colombia’s science and technology institutions have such momentum in certain directions that the possibility of making changes to preserve competitiveness seem altogether unlikely.

Also, law has played an important role. For Colombia, the process of consolidating mechanisms for scientific knowledge links to institutions as well as development. Perhaps t
his is why Law 1286 (enacted in 2009) is one of the most significant science and technology policies for Colombia today. It not only regulates legal logistics for science and technology across Colombian institutions, but also, it has effectively elevated Colciencias to the level of “regulating agency” within the state.

Other policy emerged in 2011—perhaps as a side effect of Law 1286. Colombia’s congress had considered a national policy on science and technology that would count a tenth of mining and oil exploration royalties towards science and technology after Law 1286’s enactment. These fresh resources – some 500 million dollars – were supposed to promote transparency and promote research in public and private sectors, directly impacting Colombians and their regions. Such changes, it was thought, might drastically alter the fact that national investment in science and technology, and research and development in general, are highly unequal. In fact, three areas – Bogota, Antioquia, and the department of Valle – account for more than three-quarters of all such total investment. But securing greater happiness might necessarily involve correcting such glaring inequities as these.

Colombia’s Law 1286 itself belongs to a history of science and technology policy. Whereas the country yet guides policy and production mainly by a neoclassical economic perspective, its biodiversity (and biofuels) require that it consider such laws as 1286, which might alter low levels of development in neglected regions like Amazonas, Choco, and Putumayo. Some argue these regions pose a highly competitive future for Colombia in many international markets; however, infrastructure, and human capability and industry confidence, remain weak.

One philosophy in favor of Law 1286 entertains the hope of overcoming issues that have arisen from the Law 29 of 1990. There is also hope that such policy will create space for more specific strategies and new objectives that will Colombia to operate its science and technology systems and realize the goals it sets. Given the need to create innovation and technology policy (ITP) that takes into account current disparities, as well as the history of Colombia’s bureaucratic frameworks for actualizing policy, some contend that one successful strategy in Colombia’s science and technology policy agenda has been that of incremental change. With laws such as 1286, Colombia might hope to improve the means necessary to apply laws governing the vision and direction of previous policies.

As Ezrahi observes, science has “both discouraged and inspired utopian politics” throughout Western history. He further notes that “the objectives of predicting and controlling nature and human behavior,” as well as the “technological success of science,” have supplied humanity with “some of the most powerful rhetorical resources for justifying and legitimating a form of politics confined to actions directed by practical, instrumentally attainable goals.” Looking at Colombia, and the outcome of its science and technology policy efforts thus far, we might additionally ask if science and technology policy has had any discernible effects vis-à-vis utopian politics, predicting/controlling human behavior, or technological success. If so, have “instrumentally attainable goals” been legitimated? Whose goals, we should also ask, does Colombia’s science and technology policy seek to attain. And whose happiness do state actions and policy seek to secure, if at all?

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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