A Witch Hunter in Cambridge

A stellar group of Venezuelan scientists are demanding University of Cambridge revoke a year-long fellowship from a former IVIC director with a witch-hunting past.

Photo: University of Cambridge, retrieved.

When the University of Cambridge announced last September that Venezuelan scientist Ángel Viloria had been chosen as the 2019-2020 recipient of the Simón Bolívar Chair, an annual fellowship for Latin American scholars, we could have expected celebration in Venezuela’s scientific community. 

Instead, there was outrage.

More than 40 Venezuelan scientists, including Simón Bolívar Chair’s founder and former Venezuelan ambassador to UNESCO Francisco Kerdel-Vegas, and former Simón Bolívar Chair recipient Fabián Michelangeli, signed a letter addressed to Cambridge, decrying Viloria and mentioning the firing and disciplining of scientistsreported by scientific magazines like Nature and Sciencefor being critical of chavismo during his years as deputy director (2005-2007) and director (2008-2011) of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigations, IVIC, Venezuela’s prime scientific institution. 

“We want the fellowship to be revoked,” says Margarita Lampo, an IVIC herpetologist and one of the leading scientists behind the letter. “There can’t be this impunity for the people responsible for destroying a nation and its institutions.”

The University of Cambridge chose Viloria for his zoological research (he has discovered over 140 genera, species and subspecies) and has only replied with a receipt of acknowledgment.

Under Viloria’s direction, the IVIC saw “a systematic process of dismissals of researchers and assistant personnel” because of their political opposition to the government of Hugo Chávez, says former IVIC researcher Claudio Mendoza, who considers himself one of the first scientists targeted by “a series of direct attacks on researchers. You were fired or forced to retire.”

Under Viloria’s direction, the IVIC saw “a systematic process of dismissals of researchers and assistant personnel” because of their political opposition to the government of Hugo Chávez.

In September 2006, Mendoza was stripped of his position as head of an IVIC computational physics lab because of his comments on an article promoting the play Copenhaguen, about the ethical problem of using theoretical physics for the development of nuclear weapons. Mendoza sarcastically suggested that Venezuelans shouldn’t worry about the country’s alliance with Iran’s nuclear program, because Venezuelan officials don’t listen to scientists and won’t be able to develop a nuclear program on their own: “Here, bridges are built without engineers, diagnoses are made without doctors, oil is refined without oil experts, you can teach without being a teacher, you can rule without being a statesman. We will, therefore, exploit nuclear energy while ignoring the physicists.” 

Four days later, he was fired from his post, but allowed to remain as an IVIC researcher.

The IVIC’s board of directors (Viloria was still deputy director) gave him 30 days to provide evidence for his insinuation about Venezuela’s plan to enrich uranium. Mendoza submitted a folder of newspaper articles, rejected as proof, and was asked to apologize, but he refused. “He should just work at his lab instead of playing the victim all the time in the press,” said then director Máximo García Sucre to Nature magazine.

“Meritocracy Is Against Democracy”

The IVIC researchers also decry Viloria’s alleged disdain for meritocracy, something, Lampo says, he repeated “in many contexts at the IVIC.” Viloria didn’t reply to Caracas Chronicles when asked for further comments and the University of Cambridge said it was unable to provide interviews at the moment.   

According to Fabian Michelangeli, another researcher who was dismissed, Viloria would say that merits have no value in the IVIC’s decisions, since “meritocracy is against democracy.” All semblances of democracy in the institute were eliminated when the Board of Directors delayed the appointment of Maria Maillo and Sara Pekerar as new labor directors (chosen by the researchers and scientists) and made them retire against regulations, since retirement was voluntary. Viloria would justify his dismissals by saying that Venezuela needed less research and more applied science, although his zoological research focused on butterfly taxonomy, a discipline that, according to the scientists’ letter, “cannot be called applied science in any way.”

The IVIC’s board of directors would redirect this financing, against the law, deciding which projects would get it. It was “arbitrary” and “personal”.

Viloria “would publicize himself as a ‘communist scientist’ in a capitalist scheme,” says Michelangeli, who saw in Viloria the “intent to eliminate everything that disagreed with his management or with Hugo Chávez’s government.” For Michelangeli, when Viloria was appointed director, he was already rejected by the IVIC’s scientific staff. Yet, García Sucre the IVIC’s previous directorchanged the voting system to include all the non-scientific personnel, an “absolutely populist procedure.”

In early 2008, Michelangeli was removed from his post as head of the Latin American Center of Biology (CLAB), a UNESCO-IVIC sponsored institution that offered international biology courses in Caracas since the 1970s. After returning from a work meeting in Chile, Michelangeli sent his traveling receipts to the Board of Directors, to get his refunds as it was accustomed. Viloria denied the request and replaced him with Alfredo Mijares, who Michelangeli considers to be Viloria’s policy executor at CLAB. CLAB’s labor has been “utterly interrupted” by Viloria’s decisions, says Michelangeli.

In 2010, during a “war of sorts” between researchers and the director, Michelangeli informed Viloria of his Simón Bolívar Chair’s appointment. Viloria responded by removing him as an “active retiree,” taking him off his role as head of his laboratory. Mijares was selected as his replacement instead of Marie Christine Lander Ruiz, the lab’s main researcher.

Underfunding As a Weapon

Viloria is also criticized for his management of the IVIC’s research funds. 

Before 2010, the Law of Science and Technology allowed private companies to support a specific researcher, as part of a tax scheme where the private sector finances the scientific community. The IVIC’s board of directors would redirect this financing, against the law, deciding which projects would get it. It was “arbitrary” and “personal,” according to Mendoza, whose own fundsprovided by a Los Teques light bulbs companyViloria redirected.

Their dismissal came “without even the gesture of a thank-you letter for all the years of service. 43 in my case”.

Viloria’s greatest blow to the IVIC was eliminating the PLI program (Permanencia de Labores de Investigación) which allowed the IVIC’s retired researchers to continue their investigations, accounting for most of the articles published in peer-reviewed journals coming from the Institute. Considering how financing was “minimal,” Mendoza believes the decision resulted from “an ideological problem,” as “research was frowned upon.”

“Research was a bourgeois activity, with no application to the daily life of the country,” says Mendoza of the government’s vision. For the government and the board, “people thinking of stars, the sun or cockroaches’ left side” were privileged and didn’t have a connection with day-to-day issues. Eliminating the privileges of the research staff (as administrative staff couldn’t continue working after retiring) was seen, then, as an “equalizing” policy. Before eliminating the PLI altogether, Viloria dismissed acclaimed PLI and opposition neurophysiologist Reinaldo Di Polo (winner of the 2000 National Science Award) for “nonattendance” in July 2009, despite his publications in over 38 research papers in international journals since his retirement. More than half of that research was done at the IVIC.

“The dismissal of the PLI staff was abrupt,” says former PLI researcher Gioconda San Blas, the first woman to join (and become president of) the Venezuela Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural sciences. “The majority of us were openly opposed to the government.” Although the PLI researches “were among the most productive, science-wise,” their dismissal came “without even the gesture of a thank-you letter for all the years of service. 43 in my case.”

The Simón Bolívar Chair was created by the Venezuelan State in 1968, to create a space at the University of Cambridge where Latin American scholars could spend a year researching and writing while the university took advantage of their presence for new insights on Latin American affairs, culture and scientific knowledge. Viloria’s induction is unacceptable as someone who, in San Blas’s words, was “more loyal to the regime than to the institution he supposedly led.” Nowadays “the IVIC is practically inactive,” Mendoza says of Viloria’s legacy, citing a recent conference on pseudoscientific alternative medicine hosted by the institution: “Wizards who have nothing to do with science.”

The day after we published this piece, Tamsin Starr, Head of News at the University of Cambridge, sent us a statement, saying that “The University remains fully committed to freedom of speech and expression and expects all members of our community to uphold this principle. We do understand that there are issues that invoke strong feelings among people and communities, and we take the welfare of our staff and students very seriously. But freedom of speech means allowing people to express controversial or unpopular opinions as well as new ideas, and indeed have them challenged and debated, without fear of disrespect or discrimination.”

The statement made no further specific comments on the matter our piece is discussing.

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.