Plans for a research powerhouse in the Andes begin to unravel
Source: Science Magazine
Paola Ayala knew it was a gamble to dial down her physics research at the University of Vienna in May 2015 and spend most of her time at Yachay Tech University, a nascent institution in rural northern Ecuador backed with an estimated $1 billion in government funding. But the allure of the grand experiment to create a world-class research university in the Andes was overpowering. Ayala, the first Ecuadorian woman to get a Ph.D. in physics, was eager to return home as the school’s new dean of physical sciences and nanotechnology. “I wanted to help change my country,” she says.
Ayala’s run in Ecuador didn’t last long. Last month, Yachay Tech fired her and five other scientists in leadership positions, including Chancellor Catherine Rigsby, a geologist recruited from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Ecuador’s struggling economy may have played some role; the university in a 22 June statement said that the terminations were part of an austerity plan meant to trim $2 million in expenses. But the ousted academics say they are victims of shifting national priorities and a personality conflict with Yachay Tech’s new rector, the university’s top position.
The acrimonious dispute comes at what everybody involved agrees is a moment of truth for Yachay Tech. Ecuador’s former president, Rafael Correa, launched the institution in 2013 as part of a bid to transform the nation’s economy from one reliant on exports of oil and other commodities to one that generates its own innovations. The government began erecting a sprawling campus in Yachay, a new science city 3 hours north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, in Urcuquí province, and the nascent venture wooed overseas faculty with competitive salaries.