The Vice Minister of Science of Colombia: “Children from excluded areas have to be able to get to Harvard”
Yesenia Olaya Requene, 33, had to leave the place where she was born at 13: the municipality of Tumaco (Nariño), one of the areas of the Colombian Pacific hardest hit by the armed conflict. To protect her from the presence of illegal groups, which have historically intimidated the population with murders, recruitment of minors, displacements, and forced disappearances in their dispute over the territory, her parents, a teacher, and a motorcycle taxi driver, preferred to send her to Pasto, the capital. from the Department.
After finishing high school, Olaya Ruquene graduated as a sociologist from the University of Caldas, a public institution. She received a scholarship from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, she studied a master’s degree in pedagogy and a doctorate in anthropology, the first title of that educational level in her family. Her academic experience led her to Harvard University, where she served as coordinator of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute’s Certificate in Afro-Latin American Studies. She left the prestigious university to assume, five months ago, as vice minister of talent and social appropriation of knowledge of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
Now he is one of the Afro-descendant figures in high-level positions in the presidency of Gustavo Petro. He moved from the world of academia to the public sector with the aim of bringing science to vulnerable regions and communities, but has encountered serious challenges, including within government.
Q. You came to the vice ministry with the vision of bringing science to the regions. How has that road been?
R. It has been quite a challenge. One of the main obstacles is that science in Colombia has been mostly an elite issue, limited to a few cities where scientific development is concentrated. Historically, there have been strong exclusion barriers in regions such as the Amazon or the Pacific. 60% of the researchers with a doctorate recognized by Minciencias are born in the main cities of the country: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Manizales or abroad. In contrast, only 3% of recognized researchers belong to indigenous, black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, Palenquera or Rom (gypsy) communities. It is in these large cities where research centers and groups have been developed.
Q. How to start that transformation?
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R. Generating pedagogy to democratize access to scientific knowledge. Science is not an exclusive matter of laboratories and universities, as has been built in the collective imagination, but must be at the service of the population, providing solutions to local problems, alternatives for economic development and promoting aspirations in children, girls and young people. That science can become your life project.
Q. It has been for you. He was born in Tumaco, studied, went to Harvard and decided to accept the vice-ministry. Are you satisfied with your first months of management?
R. I have carried out my career abroad, but my research has focused on Colombia and border countries: migration, forced displacement and racial inequalities. I always wanted to return to the country. The balance has been positive: we opened the program orchids women in science to link 60 doctors and young researchers to projects that allow addressing problems associated with various forms of violence; We created five science clubs, focused on peace, food sovereignty, bioeconomy and robotics with minors from different regions, including the Nukak Maku indigenous community of the Amazon, and we launched the MIT-Harvard mission to take ten girls between 14 each semester. and 16 years old, from indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, to discover state-of-the-art laboratories in the United States. They will be accompanied by community teachers and will be able to participate in a discussion with the physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, Nobel Prize in Physics 2001.
Q. What has surprised you about the public sector?
R. It is another world. But what has struck me the most is the low representation of the excluded regions in decision-making positions. At Minciencias I am the only woman from the Colombian Pacific in a management position; the second that comes from Tumaco. I am also surprised by the ignorance of the deep Colombia. When I interact with government officials, there is a distance from that Colombia of rivers, mangroves and seas. It is important to recognize this because we must generate training within the Government itself on ethnic issues, gender inclusion and the fight against racism.
Q. Is the purpose of connecting science with the territories marked by your personal experience?
R. My mother told me, when I was 13 years old, “mija, you have to go. And when she returns to Tumaco, she has to arrive transformed into a doctor.” At 13 you don’t understand that, but when you’re born in the Pacific you mature very quickly. You are aware of social problems, of hunger because you see it in your family, of labor inequalities. My mother sold vegetables in the market and with that she managed to pay for her degree. That impulse leads one to build a life project. I am the first doctor in my family, that in my family has been a historic event. You also assume a responsibility because you inspire other girls to continue with their educational project. When you leave the Pacific, you leave representing a collective purpose, not an individual one.
Q. Already in the Government, it is one thing to say it, and another to do it. Has it been easy to land those intentions?
R. It hasn’t been. Going from discourse to achievements is a very complex path. In Colombia we have naturalized racism, exclusion. Here we say “he who doesn’t go to university is because he doesn’t want to”, but in deep Colombia the reality is that there are no options. There is a very strong challenge for the State to be able to seize young people from armed groups and girls from prostitution networks; that education becomes the way. That requires resources and sustainable strategies. It is a complex path, you advance one step and the next day there are setbacks due to the way the bureaucracy operates, how resources are distributed. When you start to move those structures, problems appear. We need consensus that puts the defense of people’s dignity in the middle.
Q. Is science occupying the place it deserves on the national agenda?
R. Not so far. However, the effort that we are making in the Government is to be part of the great transformations. Talking about the energy transition, greater access to education, the substitution of illicit crops requires science, technology and innovation. But of a science appropriated by the people, that is a tool and is not seen as something isolated to the communities. In the National Development Plan there have been very important articles to democratize science. The challenge is for science to be transversal to all the reforms that are being built.
Q. Do you have concrete examples of how to connect science with these other bets?
R. Science and peace, for example, are the same right. Spaces where communities carried out daily activities such as fishing or agriculture, became geographies of terror as a result of the war. In the rivers where people fished, human bodies appeared. Returning to traditional practices requires technologies to rebuild the community social fabric and heal the memory of pain. If we think of a technology transfer project for water sanitation in the Colombian Pacific, for the substitution of illicit crops in the Amazon or to recover forests devastated by deforestation, we must think that this transfer is accompanied by community pedagogy. This is how we build science for peace.
Q. What experience has marked you as vice minister?
R. I was in the village of Imbili, in Tumaco, an area hit by violence, where there is a robotics center with six computers where they developed an alert system to measure the flooding of the Mira River. The first thing the community told me was that a high-level official had never visited them and they asked me for mental health support. You can’t do robotics when students are thinking about the scourges of war. Those young people have challenges every day. Science is a way to build peace in the territory.
Q. How to show these children and young people that science is a door to other opportunities?
R. We need more social investment. That science projects come with investment that allows adapting these technological centers, providing them with the instruments that young people need to be creative. And it requires the presence of the State. That is a way of showing that science is important to the government. These investments must be accompanied by real educational opportunities, with programs so that they can study a scientific career. That science is not seen as an elite matter, but rather that the young peasant from Guainía, from Vichada, see that he can achieve a university degree, study a scientific career and put it at the service of the development of his community.
Q. In science there is little money, but there is. Are you getting where you need to be?
R. That is another of the challenges. We have to redesign the calls so that there is greater participation from the communities. We established that 30% of the places in the Fulbright scholarships that support the high-level training of professionals and researchers in Colombia are for indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants. Criteria of gender, territory and ethnicity were also defined in the calls for doctorates and postdoctorates.
Q.Is there hope so that more boys and girls, like those from Imbilí, can dream of reaching universities like Harvard?
R. Completely. But for that, those of us who have already reached these spaces of power have to open bridges for those who have not arrived. It is possible, but an articulation process is required. We cannot stay alone with that knowledge or experience. We must generate concrete actions to look at the territories.
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