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Science’s new geography

Scientists from seven countries want to encourage partnerships in Latin America

BRAZBrazil occupies a position of leadership in the ranking of Latin American scientific production, with over 18 thousand articles published in magazines indexed to the Thomson – ISI (Institute for Scientific Information database). Mexico comes in second place, with a little more than 7 thousand articles, followed by Argentina, with 5 thousand, and well ahead of Chile and Venezuela, with less than 2,500 indexed articles.

This discrepancy could be attenuated if the relations between researchers from these countries were made closer. Collaboration between Brazilian researchers and Spanish-speaking ones is rare, with the exception of the Argentineans. Brazil has 30% of its articles published in an international cooperation, but the great majority of the collaborators are in the United States and in European countries, in spite of the efforts of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to stimulate these partnerships by means of the South American Program for the Support of Cooperative Activities in Science and Technology (Prosul), implanted in 2001.

“We need to expand this interchange”, says Eduardo Krieger, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). It was with this objective that that ABC promoted the Brazilian Science and Scientific Cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean Conference, between January 24 and 26, in Rio de Janeiro. The encounter, which brought together a hundred scientists from seven countries, revealed the current scenario of scientific and technological policies, the structure of the development agencies, and the state of the art of researches.

Leading researchers of Brazilian science, all of them members of the ABC, presented the main lines of investigation under way in the country. The prospects for science and technology (S&T) were outlined by the minister himself, Sérgio Resende. “We qualify about 10 thousand doctors a year, but there is little research in companies”, he explains. “Our greatest challenge is to make S&T a policy of State.”

The picture of S&T in Brazil is very different from the one in Mexico, which qualifies 1,500 doctors a year. “We have a contingent of researchers that does not grow, because there is no employment and there is a lack of information to stimulate youngsters to take to science and technology”, said Sílvia Torres-Peimbert, from the Astronomy Institute of the Autonomous University of Mexico. The National System of Investigation of her country – equivalent to our CNPq – has 10 thousand members and a list of 2,100 candidates applying for entry. “The main stimulus is the 30% increase in salary”, she admitted. This motivation blights the quality of the science and results in the publication of brief articles in non-indexed magazines. “Our publication, measured by the ISI, is less than half Brazil’s’, she compared.

The Mexican scientific community described by Sílvia is distinct from the Chilean one, made up of about 2,500 very active researchers, above all in the areas of clinical medicine, plant and animal science, and space sciences. “The number of publications in indexed magazines in 2003 was 2,550, twice the number recorded in 1993”, said Rafael Vicunha, from the School of Biological Sciences of the Catholic University of Chile.

Vigorous research
In Chile’s case, the main source of financing is Fondecyt, which last year set aside US$ 13 million for research in the various areas of knowledge. “This year, the amount should reach US$ 16 million”, he foresaw. The investments in research and development (R&D) in areas considered strategic, such as biotechnology, genomics and information technology, are supported by the Fund for the Promotion of Scientific and Technological Development (Fondef). Last year, these resources added up to US$ 250 million, with a corresponding contribution from companies, he said.

With the support of the World Bank, Chile is implementing an even more ambitious project: the Bicentenary Science and Technology Program, which has the objective of increasing the qualification of human resources, strengthening the national scientific base, and establishing closer links with companies. Amongst other initiatives, the program provides for the formation of technological consortiums consisting of the association of at least one university and three companies, which act like corporations. The five consortiums now formalized – in the areas of biomining, biomedicine, forest, fruit-growing and winegrowing development – will receive US$ 18.7 million from their supporters in the course of five years.

In Peru, science and technology made history. “In 1930, the country was already producing small aircraft, and in 1952 we constructed the first high-altitude railway of anywhere in the world, at an altitude of 4,980 meters”, says Jorge Heraud, from the Catholic University of Peru, attributing the skills in engineering in the country to the ancestral Incan heritage. “The problem is that we lost this quality for a period of time, by virtue of the lack of capacity for investment and of income and culture. That has immobilized the country”, he regretted. Five years ago, Peru found its bearings again. “There is a generalized feeling of growth: exports have tripled and inflation is 1%”, he says, citing two indicators of the country’s growth. “In this environment, science is resurging to support development.”

In Venezuela, the expectation for investments in S&T in the next few years is also great. The government recently announced the Science Mission program and the intention of setting aside US$ 400 million for the Ministry of Science in the next six years. These resources are going to support postgraduate scholarships in such areas as engineering, sovereignty, and national defense and security. “The program is polemical and the community reacted strongly, since its foundations are not clear”, says Carlos di Prisco, a member of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation, of the Scientific Academy and of the Academy of Physical Sciences. The fear is lest these resources are not distributed by means of the official development agencies. “It is not clear whether the Ministry of Science and Technology will have the power to evaluate and control the performance of these projects”, he explains. Prisco recalls that, for years, Venezuela has been seeking to expand partnership with Latin American researchers. “Even Unesco has now recommended the consolidation of a mathematical union in Latin America and the Caribbean, which could be an example for cooperation between countries”, he suggested.

The new Venezuelan research portfolio, focused on areas considered strategic by the government, is similar to the Cuban model. “We made three great scientific revolutions: in physics, in chemistry, and in biotechnology”, Manoel Limonta said. “The researches began in 1981, by personal decision of President Fidel Castro, who wanted us to develop a drug against cancer”, he recalls. The target was leukocyte interferon, which no longer had patent protection. The task was entrusted to two specialists, and Limonta was one of them. The two visited the United States and Finland before beginning to structure the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center, which began in a laboratory of 180 square meters. “Fidel accompanied our work closely, demanding results. On one occasion, he visited us for 42 days running. As he could arrive at any moment, nobody went home”, he said. Besides the interferon – alpha N Heberon -, the center developed a series of medicines, amongst them a recombinant vaccine against hepatitis B.

It is one of the 15 Cuban institutions researching into biotechnology, an area that now boasts over 7 thousand researchers. “Since 2005, we have no more records of hepatitis B amongst persons less than 15 years old. We have also ended meningitis in our country”, he guarantees. Researches are now concentrated on the development of vaccines against dengue and Aids. “What helped us to develop biotechnology was the need to export, and our products, sold to over 50 countries, are now the fourth item in the list of Cuban exports”, he says.

Jacob Palis, of the Pure and Applied Mathematics Institute and the president of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), urged all the participants to make use of Prosul for collaborative projects. “If we have excellent projects, the budget is going to increase.”