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CECs, Centro de Estudios Científicos (Center for Scientific Studies) is a private, non-profit corporation, devoted to the development, promotion and diffusion of scientific research. CECs was founded in 1984 as the Center for Scientific Studies of Santiago and has since been directed by physicist Claudio Bunster.

“If you plan to make a voyage of discovery, choose a ship of small draught”
Captain James Cook rejecting the large ships offered by the Admiralty for the search of a new continent.
 
  

 

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A small band of researchers at the Center for Scientific Studies (CECs) in Valdivia, Chile, share a daring, old-fashioned dream in this Great Science era – the unfettered quest for knowledge in a small, independent, top quality research institute. Its members have come together over the past two decades to launch an intellectual adventure that is risky, exhilarating, and richly productive.

Nestled between the Andes and the Pacific in this small southern city, CECs is one of the few institutes in the world working at the frontiers of research in multiple disciplines without endowment or affiliation to a host institution. Its researchers are free to do their best science without regard to fashion and without bureaucratic restriction, in an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual support.  The result is a steady flow of innovative ideas, highly trained students, and publications in international peer-reviewed journals. The Center has defied assumptions about small size in placing Chile on the world map of science, over-turning the customary research model in Chile, and showing by example how to “achieve more with less.”

The strategy of CECs is to sustain a scientifically rich environment where science and scientists come first – to attract the best people, and offer them the freedom to follow their dreams.

The success of this strategy is best expressed by the Center’s own researchers, who speak in tones of curiosity, wonder, and occasionally pride in describing their thrilling voyage through uncharted waters.

“We could all be somewhere else, but we decided to be here.”


Visitors to CECs quickly learn that the credo here is “freedom” at every level of professional and personal life: Freedom in the egalitarian, noncompetitive structure that nourishes teamwork; freedom in the remote southern location geographically far from the scientific mainstream; and freedom in the choice of challenging high-risk, high-payoff opportunities which have lured world-class researchers and their students from secure positions elsewhere.

Valdivia was born out of exasperation with the restrictive bureaucracy, meager budgets, and outdated labs of traditional institutions – and a yearning for true intellectual freedom.

In the early 1980s, a group of leading Chilean researchers holding respected positions in distinguished universities abroad, mostly in the U.S., began to venture back home. A new vision was expressed in a five-page proposal by Princeton theoretical physicist Claudio Bunster (then Teitelboim) to the Tinker Foundation of New York. This proposal, entitled “Establishment of an Independent Center for Scientific Research in Santiago, Chile,” is proudly retained by the Center as its founding “manifesto.” Approved on June 18, 1984, it jump-started CECs and allowed a small group of distinguished scientists to join Bunster in a rented house in the suburbs.

These founders soon realized, however, that as long as they remained in the capital city, without adequate laboratory facilities or real independence, they had completed only half their task. In 1995, Bunster was advising President Eduardo Frei on how to strengthen Chilean science, which gave him opportunities to talk to research leaders around the world.  In 2000, he and his colleagues put their fresh thinking into practice, moving CECs 500 miles south to Valdivia, where they renovated the 1912 Hotel Schuster to blend with the city’s handsome century-old architecture.

The Center then had enough funding for only three months.  But thanks to designation as a Millennium Science Initiative, with financing from the World Bank and Chilean government, and later a grant from the Andes Foundation, CECs passed its early financial hurdles. In 2004, it remodeled a second, adjacent building to house modern biology and glaciology laboratories. In 2005, it added the continent’s first certified transgenic mouse unit, in a stroke extending its research capabilities and international standing.  By 2006, the original group of 20 scientists had grown to 80, including junior researchers, postdocs, and graduate students, about one-third of them foreigners. The Center plans to limit additional growth to 20 percent in order not to jeopardize its agility.

“The passion of the scientist drives the science. A program doesn’t drive the science.”

CECs pioneers have treated all details of their new endeavor as a partnership.  The first and most important credo was that science, not the program, is primary.  Researchers are urged to follow the most important questions wherever they might lead, toward the very “heart of science.”

The second principle was that the governing structure of CECs, aside from the office of Director Claudio Bunster, would be “horizontal” – without hierarchy or titles.  All scientists would be called researchers, and all would have a voice in decisions.  While such egalitarianism defies scientific tradition, it has paid off in enthusiasm, teamwork, and mutual support.  For example, the decision to add a new program in Glaciology and Climate Change was warmly approved, even though it would require a substantial portion of CECs funding. When one of the Center’s leading biologists decided to shift from biophysics into neuroscience, a major career change, he received enthusiastic support. “When we get together, good ideas are recognized and approved quickly, and bad ideas are recognized and rejected just as quickly,” said one researcher. “We spend very little time in meetings.”

Both decisions are already paying off, with the publication of papers in Neuroscience and the quick establishment of the glaciology program as an international force.

“We are more than colleagues; we are comrades.”

Collaboration is more than an abstraction at CECs, where virtually all researchers regard one another as colleagues and make connections across disciplines.  When the new Glaciology program needed funding for its first expedition, one researcher in an unrelated field recalled his feelings: “We were all happy to put our hands in our pockets and share from our grants.  We are more than colleagues; we are comrades. This is why I am here. It is a place that has allowed me to accomplish my dreams.”

Equally significant, the sharing of ideas is also commonplace. In most of the scientific community, especially in the life sciences, secrecy about one’s work prevails until publication. At CECs, however, openness is the rule, ideas are shared constantly, without fear, and outsiders welcomed to pre-publication discussions.

“I have no tenure, no contract, and I am doing the best science of my life.”

The researchers at CECs have little security, but despite this uncertainty, their performance has consistently surpassed the Center’s small size. Without administrative, classroom, or committee duties, they have been able to fully focus on research and to produce outstanding results.  Of a corps of some 15 leading researchers, eight have received the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and three have been Howard Hughes International Fellows.  Three have been awarded the Chilean National Science Medal, and two have been elevated to the elite ranks of Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.  Physics Nobel Prize Awarded Frank Wilzcek notes his CECs affiliation as “adjunct professor.”

“We have been able to demonstrate that something new is possible.”

At first, it seems improbable that this small band of researchers and their students, from Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Italy and the UK, in a small city in the far south of an underdeveloped country, can be so productive.  The participants themselves, however, do not seem surprised. “We thought that if we took the risk and acted boldly it might work. And it did!” says Director Bunster. “It is not a model; we call it a prototype. It is wonderful to demonstrate, by example, especially in a small country, that at any time something dramatically different is possible. That is, perhaps, even more important as a legacy than science itself.”