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Paula Marcela Arias Pulgarí­n

COLOMBIA - Telecoms & IT

Engineering Potential

Director, COLCIENCIAS

Bio

Paula Marcela Arias Pulgarí­n is a graduate of Universidad Nacional and has an 18-year pedigree in planning, development, promotion, and project management in both the public and private sectors. He has held management positions in companies including CCA Mazda, Universidad Nacional, Colsubsidio, and Jorge Tadeo Lozano University. He is currently Director of COLCIENCIAS.

"Colombia has traditionally characterized itself as a quick adaptor of new technologies and the habits attached to them."

How would you assess your first months in the position and what do you want to bring to COLCIENCIAS?

The institution clearly transformed itself during those months. For example, we carried out an internal restructuring and designed the internal information systems of COLCIENCIAS in addition to refurbishing and modernizing our facilities. It was a tough task, but we enjoy the support of the government and other public institutions. We also ranked among the top-five public institutions in terms of the efficient use of resources in 2013. As part of our restructuring, the three main areas on which we focused our budget last year were education, health, and innovation. We plan to support 1,300 Master’s and 1,000 PhD students in 2014. We have granted over 2,700 scholarships during the past three years of this government, which represents around 60% of all scholarships COLCIENCIAS has granted over the past 20 years of our scholarship program. Thanks to the all-time record health budget of Ps65 trillion, we have been able to focus on strengthening existing national infrastructure and institutions. Finally, we have assumed the leading role in innovation, having allocated approximately Ps29 trillion to two projects for the development of innovative initiatives. In fact, one of these was aimed at private companies, for which we had over 1,000 applicants, and the other at higher education and research centers. We will be working together with national institutions and centers to factor ideas into Colombia’s future science and technology policy guidelines.

What is the profile of students benefiting from COLCIENCIAS support?

We support a broad spectrum of students in the belief that research specialists are formed during their school years. As a result, and with the support of the regional governments, we seek to boost the potential of young people nationwide. Therefore, we lend support at various levels; at schools to boost research projects among talented students, and at universities focused on Master’s degrees and PhD programs, with students who already plan to develop careers in research. One of our greatest achievements of the past few years has been to keep talented students in Colombia, where before many had opted to pursue research studies abroad.

“Colombia has traditionally characterized itself as a quick adaptor of new technologies and the habits attached to them.”

What were the main challenges faced during the development of science and research?

The main one was the lack of financial support from the state to promote and develop related activity. As I said before, we are enjoying record budgets, and yet there have been many obstacles before researchers and scientists. Regardless, over the past 20 years, we have managed to create a strong, growing community of over 13,000 researchers, and I believe that this number will continue to increase.

The number of patents in Colombia increased by 28% between 2009 and 2012. What are the main reasons behind such success?

I think that increasing economic resources, as well as the rising number of PhD graduates in our country, are among the reasons behind such impressive increases. The more you invest in research the more patents will be created. At the same time, COLCIENCIAS has also been contributing to this rise in patents through several initiatives, such as promoting a better understanding of copyright and the registering process. Additionally, universities have been implementing better incentives for academics to develop and register patents.

How relevant are partnerships with universities within the COLCIENCIAS development strategy?

COLCIENCIAS has always enjoyed solid ties with international partners; however, in 2013, we saw the need to advance such partnerships and establish a better cooperation framework with the leading universities of several countries. The objective of this strategy was to strengthen our scholarship program and the quality of education we provide to our students. In this context, we recently signed an agreement with Purdue University in the US, an institution boasting a long and profitable relationship with Colombia and Colombian students. The agreement is aimed at PhD students and we committed ourselves to sending 200 such individuals to Purdue University over the next decade. Also, the agreement envisages the opportunities many Colombian researchers will have at this university over the next few years. We have also signed an agreement with the UK’s University of Bath, one of the leading universities in the field of engineering. Shortly we plan to sign agreements with other institutions such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, as our goal is to strengthen ties with universities from among the global Top 100 list.

In which regions of the country does COLCIENCIAS want to prioritize the development of science and technology?

Since our current programs and plans form part of a nationwide strategy that aims to promote the best and most promising ideas, it is logical to concentrate on the main urban areas of the country. Nevertheless, we aim to develop egalitarian policies in order to boost innovation, science, and research in all regions so that we leave no one behind.

What areas within the technology sector, in your opinion, have the greatest development potential?

Colombia has traditionally characterized itself as a quick adaptor of new technologies and the habits attached to them. Thanks to the national emphasis on innovation, we will see great developments in new products and services, as well as the process of integrating technologies within business practices to render them more efficient.

How important is collaboration among the public, private, and secondary education sectors in boosting science and technology?

I believe that the willingness to collaborate already exists; however, we need to work further on allocating resources in the private sector, the engine of any economy. At the same time, I think we lack the capacity for communication between all parties due to a mutual lack of knowledge. Antioquia is one of the best examples of solid collaboration between all parties, and other regions will follow this example in the near future.

What is your overall outlook for science and technology sectors?

National defense expenditure is currently high, but should we succeed in reaching a lasting peace certain sectors are bound to benefit from reduced military spending and a rechanneling of resources. Entities active in the science and technology arena enjoy greater opportunities, and as we achieve greater security, investment in other sectors will grow. This will encourage researchers to pursue their careers in Colombia rather than relocating abroad. I also think that many Colombians will be willing to return to their homeland, and indeed, the government is set to launch an ambitious program to attract people back. Other Latin American researchers will one day find that Colombia is an ideal place to work; it has all it takes to become a regional science and research hub.

© The Business Year – March 2014

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