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Placing Chile on the Map


A sliver of a country wedged between the lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean and the mighty buttress of the Andes, Chile is a treasure trove for researchers from all over the world. The coastline trimming the Pacific for over 4800 km is an endless natural laboratory for marine biologists. The violent earthquakes rocking the country have served as case studies for some of the world's leading seismologists. And of course, stretching thousands of meters above the sea level all the way to the end of the continent, the Andes mountain range is the perfect footstool for astronomers itching to get closer to the sky. It isn't surprising, then, that over the years, Chile has welcomed countless foreign scientific projects, including the multinational European Space Observatory (ESO) that brings together researchers from 19 different countries. But increasingly, Chilean research is also seeking its own place on the map. Although regionally, Chile's scientific advances are often dwarfed by those of its immense eastern neighbor–Brazil–the skinny South American country nevertheless nurtures a thriving research sector. In the last 10 years, its number of researchers has doubled, funding for scientific development has gone up 70%, and centers of excellence devoted to cutting-edge research in specific fields are cropping up all over the country.
However, these encouraging structural developments are not the work of a unified national research institution like CNRS, for there is no such center in Chile, and full-time researchers are practically nonexistent. Instead, innovation springs from a handful of dynamic universities, like the University of Chile (UCHILE) or the Catholic University (PUC), both in Santiago. University professors, who obtain private contracts with the schools for whom they already teach, carry out 80% of Chile's research. The remaining 20% research professors either work in the private sector, in international organizations, or in the administration.
In the absence of state structures, most funding for their work comes from an important network of funding agencies, the largest of which is CONICYT.1 These highly autonomous bodies set their own priorities and criteria for excellence, and allocate funds with a call-for-proposals system meant to encourage fair scientific competition. Despite its successes, however, this university-centered approach isn't flawless. For one, the extreme cost of higher education still prohibits scientific careers to all but the wealthiest class of Chileans. Indeed, less than 10% of students graduating from public high schools make it to university (most come from private schools), and tuition for science or engineering degrees can cost as much as €3000-4500 a year, despite a base salary of only €170 per month.
The Chilean call-for-proposals system also tends to favor disciplines already well grounded in the university setting–in other words, the hard sciences. This bias jeopardizes the livelihood of more fragile disciplines like the social sciences, which, during Pinochet's military dictatorship, were practically obliterated in Chile. Pegged as “subversives,” anthropology, sociology, and political science students were frequently arrested, their classes cancelled, and their professors forced into exile or forcible “reconversion.” After 17 years of under-funding and neglect, some branches even disappeared altogether.
Since the return of democracy, however, Chile has been playing catch-up, and pledges to grant greater importance to the very disciplines that now face the daunting task of reconstructing the country's battered sense of national identity. The political will has even been strong enough to help set up region-wide development projects, such as the Faculty for the Study of Social Sciences (FLACSO).2 The new climate of openness, and relatively decent salaries–some of the highest in Latin America, have also begun to attract many French researchers to Chile recently, with 75 of them currently on post in that country.
Keen to spur Chile's development, and make use of its growing expertise, CNRS has made a point to weave close bonds with Chile over the years, exemplified by a myriad collaborations, joint labs, and projects. One of the pioneering collaborations was the ECOS program, launched in 1993 and financed by the French Ministry of foreign affairs. Divided in ECOS South (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay), and ECOS North (Mexico, Columbia, and Venezuela), its purpose is to support collaborative projects of excellence by financing short missions, scientific formation and PhD programs in all scientific fields. Also worth mentioning is the first International Joint Unit (UMI)3 in Chile, co-founded by CNRS and the University of Chile in 2000, to study the direct application possibilities of mathematical models (see CNRS International Magazine n° 1). But the list doesn't stop here: French and Chilean marine biologists started exploring the dispersion and adaptation of marine species together in 2004, with the creation of the first International Associated Laboratory (LIA) devoted exclusively to marine biology.4 In 2006, it was the turn of seismologists from both countries to form an LIA and share resources for the study of subduction earthquakes.5 New research on the cell cycle initiation in embryos also sparked an International Program for Scientific Cooperation (PICS) in molecular biology, soon followed by another in political science, which compared and contrasted state systems and the professionalization of politics in both France and Chile.
Yet as Franco-Chilean partnerships multiply, the country's efforts to connect with its closer, regional neighbors are slow to take off. In fact, Chile has more co-publications with France than with any other Latin American country.
In addition, 17% of CNRS' co-publications with Latin America are with Chileans, though Chile itself is only responsible for 8% of the total publications produced in Latin America. The explanation behind these surprising numbers is, among other reasons, Chile's weariness to partner with the often overpowering Brazilian heavyweight, as well as a stated attraction for Europe's wealthy scientific networks.
To truly become an actor on the international scene, however, it is becoming clear that Chile's research sector needs to open the valves of communication, and create partnerships with its regional neighbors. One notable accomplishment is the creation of STIC AMSUD,6 a joint effort to support research projects in communication and information technology. The first collaboration of its kind, it brings together institutions from France (CNRS, MAE, and INRIA), Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil with, to date, a dozen projects underway, most of which co-funded by CNRS.
A successful initiative now taken as a model by Brazil for its own international cooperations.

Lucille Hagège

>> For a complete list of all CNRS projects with Chile, visit

>> in figures
> 15 million inhabitants
> 8500 professor-researchers, an average of 3.2 for every 1000 active citizens
> €400 million budgeted for Research and Development, or 0.7 % of Chile's GNP for 2007
> 8% of all articles published in Latin America are Chilean
> 17% of CNRS co-publications with Latin America are with Chile
> 280 CNRS missions to Chile in 2006
> 12 ongoing research projects co-financed by CNRS and CONICYT
> 2 Franco-Chilean International Associated Laboratories (LIA)
> 2 Franco-Chilean International Programs for Scientific Cooperation (PICS)
> 1 Joint International Unit (UMI)

CNRS' Latin America Bureau

Based in Santiago, the CNRS regional bureau in Latin America cultivates scientific partnerships with research institutions far beyond the borders of Chile. Inaugurated in 2002 as an institutional mediator for Brazil and the four countries of the “Southern Cone” region–Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the bureau is now in charge of scientific cooperation with the whole of Latin America. It has been under the direction of Christophe de Beauvais since September 2006.


Notes :

1. Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica (
2. Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (
3. Centro de Modelamiento Matemático (CMM).
4. CNRS (EDD) / Centre de Roscoff (Université Paris 6) / Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC).
5. CNRS (INSU) / INPG / ENS / Universidad de Chile.

Contacts :

> Christophe de Beauvais
Regional CNRS representative in Chile.
>Claire Giraud
Direction des relations internationales.


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