Tuesday, July 25, 2017

[Editorial] Science Under Assault: Trust is a Four Letter Word—Again

By on July 13, 2017

When Karl Marx wrote in his essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” that history tends to repeat itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, he could have been speaking of the Puerto Rico Science & Technology Trust, the entity created in 2004 to spearhead R&D on the island.

The Science Trust is now under assault once again—this time the wolf in sheep’s clothing is House Bill 1122 that intends to gut the trust, replacing it with new trustees in the name of progress. The bill claims that the present trustees have failed to provide the fiscal stability that is demanded in these austere times. Talk about the pot calling out the kettle.

There is a political agenda underpinning HB 1122 that is misguided and hurts Puerto Rico’s chances to start creating jobs in R&D.

If the Rosselló administration wants to replace the trustees, it should do so on the basis of merit—not in one fell swoop; not throwing out the baby with the bathwater as the bill intends. The governor need not look that far back to know the harm that is done when talented scientists are tossed to fulfill a political agenda.

Yes, this is not the first time that the trust is under assault. In 2011, during the Luis Fortuño administration, the trust was targeted by then-Economic Development Secretary José Ramón Pérez Riera, who wanted to replace then-Executive Director Thomas Forest Farb and remove several world-class trustees on the board.

This newspaper denounced that assault in several stories that reported the harm that would come to Puerto Rico by replacing trustees with government cronies. One of those trustees, Mariano García Blanco, was a renowned scientist who had spearheaded many research projects that led to patents at Duke University. His knowledge in the applied sciences is sought the world over and has helped to generate hundreds of millions in such places as Singapore.

Sadly, he was collateral damage, resigning from his post after the fracas of 2011. Thus, Puerto Rico lost a huge talent and the continuity of projects not yet off the ground. We should not commit the same mistake again.

There are far too many trustees on the board who deserve to remain in their posts. Foremost among them is Executive Director Lucy Crespo, who has diligently worked to help applied scientists obtain investment for their research.

Puerto Rico Science & Technology Trust Executive Director Luz A. Crespo (File)

Crespo spearheaded the development of a strategic plan, which was approved in July 2015 and has led to the launch of several initiatives that are commencing to bear fruit. These include Parallel 18, a startup accelerator that has helped technology companies set up shop leading to the creation of 168 jobs and $7.4 million—not great, but a start. In 2016, the Clinical Trials Consortium was launched under Dr. Kosmos Kretsos, who has overseen 20 units conducting multiple clinical trials that have brought hundreds of scientists to Puerto Rico. Another trust initiative, the Center for Research & Prevention of Tropical Diseases, born in response to the chikungunya epidemic, led to clinical trials and the eventual proposal of a rapid diagnosis test. The trust has now been invited by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to participate in a federal grant that will net $14 million annually over the next five years.

To be fair, the amount of money generated to date is a drop in the bucket compared to jurisdictions such as Singapore, which generates millions annually in patents. They are able to do this because a plan was charted and followed over decades—not interrupted in fits and starts Así no se puede.

As Crespo said during a recent press conference, the bill would hurt the trust’s initiatives because it would interrupt the work begun. There was a time when the continuity of initiatives begun under Luis Muñoz Marín made Puerto Rico a showcase for industrialization. If they had scuttled Operation Bootstrap after its first five paltry years, the island would have never achieved 6% economic growth in the late 1960s.

The important thing to bear in mind is that most of the trust’s initiatives were commenced less than two years ago. That is far too little time to be passing judgment. The trust deserves a chance to build on the work begun.

Editor’s note: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced Tuesday that he intended to leave the board of trustees intact. This newspaper commends him for that stance.

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