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Public funds for public policy research in Latin America: a study by Lardone and Roggero

Think tanks in Latin America are mostly dependent on private and foreign funding, while governments don’t have a policy toward funding them and the social sciences sector as a whole.  This is the conclusion that Martín Lardone and Marcos Roggero came to in Vínculos entre conocimiento y política: el rol de la investigación en el debate public en América Latina (edited by Norma Correa and Enrique Mendizabal). In their study about the role of the government in public policy research funding in Latin America, they found that governments in the region have a narrow view of research promotion so that regular public funding is mainly directed to “hard sciences” –biochemistry, medicine, agriculture, etc.-, leaving a marginal share of funding for the social sciences.

Lardone and Roggero identified two clear research funding mechanisms:

  •  on-budget, programmatic financingon a stable, systematic and structural basis that works along a long-term, permanent policy on research as a tool for development of a country and which has h a fixed allocation in the national budget through ministries, public agencies or universities; and
  • non-programmatic financing thatworks in an unstable and non-systematic way, funding researchers on a project-to-project basis.

The authors concluded that programmatic financing tends to favour research done in universities, well-established entities with fixed budgets, and “hard scientific” research. As an example, only 10% of projects approved by Colombia’s COLCIENCIAS, the national agency responsible for science and technologies, are related to social sciences and education, while the remaining 90% funds natural and exact sciences, engineering, medicine, agriculture, etc.

It is not surprising, either, to find efforts to promote in-house research through public policy research inside ministries and public agencies, such as in Indonesia, which follows a policy of Balitbangs, or government research units.

In Latin America, the large majority of think tanks are private and their finances are weak. They depend on private and foreign funding for international cooperation and foundations from abroad. As mentioned before, think tanks have difficulties to access public funding. The most common way of getting public fund is by offering their own services through short-term contracts, agreements, or sometimes bidding for work in government projects. Unfortunately this means that often projects aren’t longer than a year because governments are subject to one-year budget processes.On the other side, many think tanks in Latin America prefer to be distant from government funds, citing autonomy and independent agenda as key factors for their work.

Nonetheless, various new types of public financing for public policy research are appearing in Latin America, for example:

  1. Governments allocate funds coming from multilateral financers and international organisations (e.g. IADB, World Bank, UNDP) to research.
  2. Governments manage incoming funds from the international cooperation and channelthem to organisations (among them think tanks) through a bidding process. This type of management in being used in Bolivia, through the Vice-Ministry of Public Investment and External Financing. A similar system is employed in Colombia for projects of the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation, where organisations participate on a voluntary basis.
  3. Governments channel their own funds through specialised public agencies, as in Costa Rica (that no longer relies on foreign funds) and Brazil, which has an ad-hoc agency for public policy research.
  4. Governments centralise demands for monitoring and evaluation and outsource this work to think tanks as a permanent policy. This is case of Mexico’s CONEVAL, the social development evaluation agency, and in Chile.
  5. Parliaments decide which think tanks to finance as advisers to groups or commissions. This system has been criticised for benefitting think tanks that are related to political parties, but at the same time it is a way of compensating for the governing party’s access to public agencies and information. This system is applied in Chile.
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