Archive for November 27th, 2014

IVIC: A Very Personal Story

November 27, 2014

Ivic(Here in Spanish)

I wasn’t born at IVIC (Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientifícas, the Venezuelan Institute for Scientifc Research), but for a large fraction of my existence, I actually felt almost like I was. (Which was actually possible, since IVIC has housing for researchers, except it did not exist the year I was born). Thus, it is actually quite painful to see how the fake revolution wants to erase its past, turn it into something different than it should be and simply destroy in the revolution’s ignorance what that institution has meant for Venezuela.

For those that don’t know what is going on, the Venezuelan National Assembly approved in its first discussion a project to change IVIC’s bylaws, including changing its name, its objectives, how it is run, essentially erasing the proud history of an institution that contributed quite a bit to the scientific, educational, academic and technological institutionality in the country. The project was supposedly promoted and written by PSUV Deputy Guido Ochoa, a Ph.D. in Forest Science, with a fairly unimpressive publication list, but who apparently believes he knows what is good and best for Venezuelan science.

Reportedly, not even the authorities of IVIC, mostly pro-revolution, knew of the Bill, approved in its first discussion and the project was not consulted with any of the scientific community of IVIC, so much for the much ballyhooed “participatory” democracy of Chavismo. Among other pearls, the Bill replaces the researchers Assembly, which approves such things as promotions to tenure and policy, by an all-employee Assembly, where to decide such important matters, any employee who has been at IVIC for one year will participate and all students will be part of it. IVIC’s name is changed to IVECIT (Instituto Venezolano de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación) and the changes are made so that “science will no longer be shut in in the laboratories, which will allow “el pueblo” and the communities to permanently build technological elements for the transformation of the country”

What a bunch of inflated and supercharged BS, which only shows the ignorance of those that promoted it and wrote it. They are simply unqualified to even be involved in scientific and technological planning in Venezuela.

The project goes on to spew similar BS about the relationship of the new Institution with the community so that the Institute can protect the” habitat, the integral health, the economic and social institutions, culture, uses, customs and values”

Unadulterated, empty and ignorant words if you ask me. A Government that gets rid of the Ministry of the Environment, disregards all of the terrible environmental disasters in the country (Maracaibo, Guayana, air via cheap gas and the like) now wants to impose these criteria on an institution that has been a pioneer on this subject. (When I was at IVIC, too many years ago, there was an Environmental Engineering Department, which I see survives to date, under the name of “Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratory” with Eugenio Sanhueza still leading it)

And just as you think that this stuff can’t be written by anyone with some intelligence, the IVIC project, as approved by the Assembly, also states that the new Bill will allow IVIC to respect the identity, the languages and religions, the “cosmovisons” (Whatever that means), the spirituality and sacred and worship places. Equally, it will respect “the collective intellectual rights of knowledge, technology and innovations of all communities and the exchange of wisdom, according to constitutional principles.”

Yes, it is really hard to make this stuff up.

Many years ago, in the late sixties, I showed up at IVIC to inquire about the possibilities of working in the labs of the Physics Department. I had just finished my Freshman year, didn’t really know much Physics, but knew what I wanted to do (I thought!) with the rest of my life: Experimental Physics. I was told to come back with certain information about me, grades and the like, and take an aptitude test. I did, and a few weeks later I was called and told that I had been accepted for a summer internship. When I showed up, I was told I would get Bs. 300 per month (All of US$ 70 per month at the time) and a food card that would give me lunch daily at the Institute’s restaurant. I could not believe my good luck.

My first day at IVIC, I was told to go meet my adviser, Roberto Callarotti, who turned out to be a much (like very much) younger  guy that I imagined, who welcomed me with enthusiasm and introduced me to a very funny maracucho who had a poster of a naked guy at a beach with an umbrella and a sign attached to it that said “Experimental Hydrologist at work”. He was hydrologist Ignacio Rodriguez Iturbe,  now a Distinguished University Professor at Princenton, a Venezuelan so distinguished that I will let you judge him by his CV.

It was a very auspicious beginning, even if I did not know or grasped it. Roberto would become my mentor, supporter and friend.

From then on, IVIC played a huge role in my life. I spent three summers as an intern. Then IVIC gave me a felllowship to go get a Ph.D. abroad, with a contract that said I had to come back when I finished. How could I not? Good people, my country, lots of opportunity. After four and a half years I came back at the tender age of 28, IVIC was an exciting place to be, lots of interesting and smart people, you got the feeling Venezuela was going somewhere, in science and everything else. My life was research, my life became IVIC. I took on students, found money for research and got support from lots of people. We did good work, published papers, sent more students abroad, even started an engineering research institute.

I had some wonderful colleagues at IVIC, some have passed away, other have moved on, and some were pushed out by the revolution even if they were still doing world quality research after their retirement age. The revolution does not tolerate excellence and competence.

Not everything was ideal. Soon I learned that politics, not science, played too important a role at IVIC. At one of my first Assembly of Researchers, I was given the very impressive CV of a biologist who was up for tenure. To my surprise, 15 people, out of about 100, voted against, just because of politics. (Years later I would be very proud that I did not get a single vote against me in the same process). But the toughest part came after the 1983 devaluation. Budgets were decimated, the work I did was expensive (Experimental low temperature physics) and a roller coaster of budgets  and devaluations that has existed to this day began.

But I still thought at the time that I would spend my life at IVIC.

In 1992, there was a strike by the workers, they wanted more privileges without doing all that researchers did. I was even Sub-Director of IVIC for 21 days after the strike. (A story on its own) At that point I realized that it would be difficult to do first class research work in my field with the low budgets and all the difficulties, I began thinking that I should leave the country if I wanted to continue doing Physics. Instead, I was lucky enough to find an exciting job in finance, where I still am today.

But I spent more of my life at IVIC that at any institution so far in my life.

The revolution has not been kind to IVIC, it bypassed its bylaws to name Directors, it brought people in for ideological reasons. I am glad I was no longer there. But many people remained, working hard, truly devoted, trying to continue doing world quality research against all odds and with limited resources, teaching courses, supervising research thesis in a fairly adverse atmosphere.

And with the proposed new law of IVIC, the discussion seems to be going back to what I thought were very byzantine discussions thirty years ago: Trying to justify IVIC’s existence. IVIC began with basic science, the job it has done has been outstanding. With a budget that has oscillated between US$ 10 and 20 million per year it has been a bargain. Rounding errors in the inefficiency and waste of Venezuela’s budgets. And with this meager budgets, IVIC not only did world class research, it helped institutionalize research in Venezuela, trained thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. That would have been enough, but IVIC also helped create other institutions, such as Intevep, the oil institute destroyed by Chávez in 2003, the Institute for Engineering, IDEA and the blood processing company Quimbiotec. IVIC also helped populate Venezuelan universities with high level academics who did research in all fields, while developing technologies and doing consulting and services, a natural byproduct of basic scientific research.That’s the natural evolution of every basic research system in the world, some stay doing research for the rest of their lives, others let their drive and dreams take them elsewhere, whether it is technology, innovation or development work in the private sector.

And now some embittered and failed Chavista scientist wants to impose his ignorant vision on IVIC, wants to erase history, wants to wipe out its distinguished history to replace it with a new institution with little link to its successful past. And note that with all the ruckus of the last week after the new Bill was approved, the Government is supposedly now willing to “discuss” the Bill, not withdraw it. A sure sign that Chavismo is not going to back down, but simply entrap the IVIC community into a discussion to later approve the current monstrous Bill and say it was approved thanks to the oxymoronic Chavista participative democracy. But the end result will not be that different than what has already been approved.

This is a Government that thinks that science and technology involves buying US$ 400 million Chinese satellites (Yes, two of them!), rather than developing its own. A government that has total contempt for excellence and  expertise. A Government that does not like discussing ideas, or tolerate people that think differently. A Government that has proven to be clueless as to what science is or where it should go and has named very limited  and non-scientific characters to preside over the science sector, including the current President of the Central Bank, the current Vice-President and the current President of Corpoelec. All of them promoted to those positions temporarily to give them a perk while another position awaited for them, but who had not clue as to what science is or where it should go. But men loyal to the process, to the revolution and its destructive ambitions. None of them will raise a finger to save IVIC at this junction.

It is a wonder that they bother with something with a small significance in the scale of the huge the problems the country faces. But small men, fight small battles. They react to their resentments, hates and picayune ambitions and goals. That is all this is.

It is simply another step in the ability of Chavismo to destroy without creating reasonable or decent alternatives. Anyone that thinks they will back down from this, should think again. Chavismo likes control, not open discussion, democracy or technological progress. The “people” will be used and abused only in name, only in that they will be mentioned until Chavismo has its trophy: The destruction of a distinguished, honorable and efficient institution and what its memory entails.

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