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When Academia Serves Politics

Maria Paula Unigarro Alba

Posted on July 1, 2019 18:33

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Colombian President Ivan Duque shows a worrisome obsession to control academic and scientific knowledge. Debates in the country will only survive this threat to independent thinking, if citizens stick to ideals of critical reason.

Ivan Orozco is an expert on transitional justice highly recognized in Colombia. His professional life has elapsed between his role as academic and his services as advisor for government institutions. On April this year, he gave a deeply concerning speech during a graduation ceremony at los Andes University.

Orozco presented a reflection about the relation between university and politics. He said that throughout the years he has seen how academicians demand scientific rigor from politicians, but also how politicians try to control the production of academic and scientific knowledge -- specially, in contexts like the current one in Colombia, where trauma generated by war is a source of social polarization. However, he argued that he had never before seen a government so obsessed with controlling the production devices of historical truth.

Recent events related to the use of glyphosate to eradicate coca crops seem to demonstrate that he is absolutely right. In 2015, during Santos’ government, aerial sprayings of glyphosate were suspended. In 2017, the Constitutional Court conditioned the employment of such product to the fulfillment of six protocols. The first requisite is to demonstrate the existence of objective and conclusive evidence that proves absence of damages for health and environment produced by the chemical compound.

With this precedent, two weeks ago, the Ministry of Defense announced that the Colombian government would resume aerial sprayings of glyphosate in the second semester of 2019. One week after this announcement, it was reported that Universidad Sergio Arboleda, where current President Duque graduated from, submitted a document to the Constitutional Court in which benefits of using glyphosate are highlighted. It is a 29-slide PowerPoint that the Dean of Economy of the University qualified as a collection of information. Among many other controversial points, the document stated that “the exposure of pesticides in the diet entails a risk equivalent to drinking a glass of wine every three months”. The document, by the way, was financed by Bayer, owner of Monsanto.

In policy debates, it is necessary to take into consideration as much valid evidence as possible. Discussing whether to use glyphosate to fight drug trafficking is not a minor thing, it can be an effective alternative to a global problem, but it can also represent great risks for people’s lives. However, the document presented by Universidad Sergio Arboleda is far from being an academic study. It lacks scientific rigor and independence. Its sole purpose is to serve its graduates' government.  

Events like this corroborate what Ivan Orozco said. Research and teaching institutions have lost prestige. Faced with this scenario, students and citizens should stick to ideals of critical reason.

It is time to understand that poor debates can only create poor societies. It is on us, regular citizens, to reflect on the information that we reproduce and to realize that we require dialogues based on arguments to grow as individuals and societies.

In times of memes, critical thinking is the best alternative to solve past problems and build a better future.

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