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Governmental research funding frameworks in Latin America

How is governmental funding of think tanks in Latin America structured, and how does this affect them? Martin Lardone and Marcos Roggero answer this question in their study El rol del Estado en el financiamiento de la investigación sobre políticas públicas en América Latina, based on a sample of twelve countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela); interviews with nearly 40 think tanks; and interviews with 60 researchers, civil servants and representatives from international cooperation.

Lardone and Roggero have identified two types of frameworks for governmental funding of think tanks in Latin America: programmatic and non-programmatic. The former consists of stable, structural and systemic financing which is destined mostly towards university research centres and the hard sciences, which makes it unfavorable for think tanks. The latter is unstable, unstructured financing that usually consists of occasional consultancy contracts. In this second scenario, personal relationships, social networks and previous experience working with the government are fundamental.

Programmatic funding is not exclusive for research on public policy; it is part of the national system for science and technology of the countries sampled. It is provided through subsidies or research project grants, contests and open calls. Examples are the CONACYT in Mexico and Colombia’s COLCIENCIAS. Research for public policy thus tends to benefit from this type of funding in a secondary way, as it is often not a priority and not explicitly contemplated in governmental planning.

The authors found that this type of funding tends to favor university-based research centres. In Chile, for instance, these centres tend to have more economic and human resources than think tanks and are better known by the government, thus they usually winn the open calls and contests. Think tanks then resort to participating in less important contests which give out less money and do not incite the interest of university research centres. In Colombia, researchers receive financing according to academic merit, which makes it difficult for non-university centres whose researchers may not have as many academic achievements.

Another challenge is that programmatic funding for research is biased towards the hard sciences. As almost all of the think tanks interviewed for this study focused on the social sciences, this made it hard for them to receive programmatic funding.

Therefore, state funding of think tanks generally happens through specific, casual consultancy contracts, which the authors call non-programmatic funding. For example, think tanks in Uruguay obtain funds by providing services and consultancy work to state institutions and organisations like the World Bank and the UNDP. In Argentina, think tanks hold contracts with different government officers; sometimes they even send them project proposals so that they consider commissioning research. In Mexico, think tanks indicated that financing depends on different ministries and that contracts are for specific projects and not for centres as a whole.

In this scenario, a think tank’s prestige is a determining factor for obtaining funds. The decision to provide financing usually falls on public servants, who will choose well-known think tanks. They will also select think tanks with a political and partisan orientation aligned with theirs.

There are however certain opportunities within programmatic funding that think tanks can take advantage of. The creation of financing schemes destined specifically towards those centres that do research on public policy, such as in Brazil, is one of them: the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo has a program that promotes this type of research.  Universities and university research centres can also outsource research to think tanks, as has happened in Mexico.  Other opportunities are schemes which channel resources from international cooperation and governmental agreements with multilateral credit organisations. The Viceministerio de Inversión Pública y Financiamiento Externo in Bolivia and the Agencia Presidencial para Acción Social y la Cooperación Internacional of Colombia are examples of agencies designed to receive and distribute funds from these schemes.

While also encouraging the state to include research on public policy in their systems for science and technology, the authors believe that since the non-programmatic funding scenario is the most common among Latin American think tanks, these should promote frequent meetings between researchers and civil servants in order to establish and multiply relationships. They should also do this with political parties so there is more communication with future governments. Collective strategies like research consortiums are another possible option so that think tanks can compete with universities. Finally, think tanks are encouraged to familiarise themselves with government criteria for the provision of financing for research; and with the State agencies most likely to finance research.