Everyone knows that science and research now are active in almost every country all over the world. Many graduate students in science, and very many doctoral scientists employed to conduct research here, were born in foreign countries; thus, science and research in the U.S. have a distinctively global character. These facts commonly lead to a false assumption that scientific research is proceeding and progressing nicely everywhere. Actually, history shows different examples where events completely outside science can disrupt the practice and progress of research!
This dispatch considers the present situation for professional scientists and science students in Venezuela. I bring this up because many academic scientists in the U.S. and other Western countries complain loudly about the recurring shortage of money for support of their research, but fail to see that faculty scientists at certain foreign universities now must struggle just to get enough food to eat; that situation completely overwhelms all the many ‘normal problems’ in today’s academic research!
Brief background about Venezuela!
Venezuela is an independent constitutional republic of some 31 million people located on the Northern edge of the South American continent. It is nominally a rich country due to its very large deposits of oil and other natural resources; despite the recent political conflicts, some gasoline produced from Venezuelan oil is widely sold here in the U.S. Venezuela has several universities and big hospitals in its largest city, Caracas. Its current national leader, Nicholás Maduro, is a socialist who has responded to increasing economic difficulties (hyperinflation) and popular disapproval of current government policies by imposing dictatorial rule, capital controls, and political repression.
A university scientist describes how the current turmoil in Venezuela affects research and teaching in its universities!
Faculty scientists in the U.S. often remain blissfully unaware that their own career misgivings are minuscule compared to scientists in certain other countries that are seized with such a great turmoil that daily life descends into a struggle only to eat and survive. Venezuela now is the prime example of such an unfortunate situation.
Prof. Benjamin Scharifker courageously has just authored a dramatic description of current university science in Venezuela, “Science struggles on in my ravaged country”, published within the May 11, 2017, issue of Nature (volume 545, page 135). He is an Emeritus Professor continuing to conduct research at the Simón Bolívar University, and also serving as a Rector at the private Metropolitan University; both institutions are located in Caracas.
He describes the present difficult situation in graphic detail and with heartfelt anguish. A sampling of quotations from his published report includes: “concomitant shortages of food and medicine”, “annual inflation rate in excess of 500%”, “A full professor makes much less than US$100 a month”, “we did not have running water in the laboratory”, “the brain drain in Venezuela is staggering”, and, “How do we cope? We don’t; we just try to survive.” Most reading his story have never personally encountered the extreme situation described by Dr. Scharifker, and probably cannot readily believe or even imagine that any faculty scientists and science students could be facing this in 2017!
The large crisis in Venezuela soon probably will advance to cause the shutdown of universities and all their activities for teaching, scientific research, and other scholarly pursuits, despite the determination of students and faculty to carry on no matter what happens. Nevertheless, a large number of university faculty and graduate students already have left Venezuela in order to be able to continue conducting their research and education; this brain drain is very sad, since I know that Venezuela previously has produced some renowned research scientists! Prof. Scharifker comments that he hopes there will not be further bloodshed of university students in their public demonstrations and protests!
What are the main messages for scientists in the West?
This situation in Venezuela is gory! Let us hope that it does not spread to any other countries! Many of us who sincerely complain about the decayed and degenerated current condition of scientific research at our universities, must recognize that our own troubled situation is drastically better than what our fellow scientists and students in Venezuela must face every day!
Science never exists in a vacuum, but always takes place within some social and political context. Scientific research can be corrupted either internally (e.g., by scientists and science companies with dishonesty or greed) or externally (e.g., by economics, politics, or society). Scientists everywhere should simultaneously be citizens, and so must take part in national and local disputes, governmental issues, and politics; just because we are always busy with researching and teaching is no reason to avoid participating personally in these areas.
In turn, science and research interact with the external milieu to produce some changes that help everyone (e.g., advanced technology, better education, improved public health and safety, innovative new concepts, new medical and dental therapies, the internet, etc.). Thus, science and society usefully interact with each other!
From my viewpoint, I believe the following conclusions are warranted. (1) Scientists are privileged people who should actively accept their simultaneous role as citizens in their country! (2) Complainers about not enough money for research, or counterproductive policies in modern academia, must recognize that everything could get very much worse! (3) Let us give our fellow faculty scientists and science students in Venezuela our hopes for their better future!
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