AAAS Contributes to Rebuilding of Puerto Rico’s Scientific Infrastructure

The Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico is among the scientific research facilities affected by severe damage from Hurricane Maria. AAAS is contributing to efforts to rebuild the nation's scientific infrastructure. | Jorge Colón

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has made a $10,000 donation to the AAAS Caribbean Division to help the Puerto Rican scientific research enterprise respond to extensive rebuilding challenges left by the destructive force of Hurricane Maria, encouraging others to also support efforts.

Puerto Rican scientists are still taking stock of the magnitude of the wreckage nearly two weeks after the hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20 as Category 4 winds propelled trees into buildings, knocked out power systems, left residents without fuel for generators and transportation and diminished access to drinking water and food supplies.

AAAS is reaching out to its membership and vast affiliate network to summon support for other financial contributions to help Puerto Rico restore its scientific infrastructure. AAAS has launched an online donation campaign for the AAAS Caribbean Division that allows individuals and scientific organizations to readily make contributions.

Juan S. Ramirez-Lugo, president of the Caribbean Division, said the hurricane dealt Puerto Rico’s scientific infrastructure a devastating blow, particularly coming on the heels of Hurricane Irma. Two of the U.S. territory’s University of Puerto Rico scientific research campuses at Río Piedras and Mayagüez and the island’s Arecibo Observatory, a large single-dish radio telescope, suffered significant damage.

Jose E. Garcia-Arraras, a biology professor at the university’s biology research center on the Río Piedras campus, said a power plant designed to keep scientific samples refrigerated broke down and the roof of a critical building gave way to flooding, rendering “samples, libraries, cell lines, etc. lost.”

Power has not been fully restored, affecting Garcia-Arraras’ own samples of monoclonal antibody cell lines collected for organ regeneration research. Efforts to salvage scientific specimens, biological material and research records to limit research disruptions are in initial stages.

Already, the destruction has stalled ongoing research projects that had drawn support from the National Science Foundation for the island’s Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Technology.

Scientific training and educational programs essential to growing Puerto Rico’s economy have been impacted, and government estimates of an at least six-month recovery period “will profoundly damage research activities,” said Ubaldo M. Córdova-Figueroa, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez.

The damage has prompted some researchers to leave the island, moving to U.S. mainland laboratories that continue to reach out to offer laboratory space to help avert further setbacks to ongoing research. Federal agencies also are considering offering extensions on research deadlines to ease the impact.

“We need to normalize the situation at the University of Puerto Rico as soon as possible – fix the electric grid and fix the Julio Garcia Diaz Building,” said Garcia-Arraras, referencing the university’s severely damaged biology research center.

Plans are being laid to repair and replace damaged educational facilities, set up informal education spaces and rebuild research laboratories to salvage scientific research endeavors brought to an abrupt halt.

The AAAS Caribbean Division, one of three regional divisions, was founded in 1985. It includes more than 500 members throughout Puerto Rico, Central America, the islands of the Caribbean Basin, Venezuela and southern Mexico. AAAS has long backed scientific initiatives that address societal needs, including support for education in the sciences and using science to build partnerships.