Science and technology could be the way to greater equality in Latin America, says UNESCO report
Latin America has one of the world’s highest proportions of women employed in science and technology research, but the region is still beset with extreme social inequalities. Innovation could be the way to narrow the gap between rich and poor, although increasing spending on research and development (R&D) to match the average in most developed countries will be a Herculean task. These and other findings are revealed in the UNESCO Science Report 2010, presented at the Organization’s Paris headquarters on 10 November, to coincide with World Science Day. The report presents a global overview of science and technology research, including chapters spotlighting Brazil and Cuba.
Latin America is an extremely heterogeneous region, with 80% of regional gross domestic product (GDP) concentrated in five countries. More than one third of Latin Americans, or 200 million people, live beneath the breadline and 13.4%, or 80 million, in extreme poverty, with the gap between rich and poor one of the widest in the world. However, greater economic stability in the region in the first years of the 21st century has put it in a good position to weather the storms of the present global economic recession, and some countries, like Brazil, Chile and Peru, are expected to have growth rates of over 3.5% in the coming years.
A low level of investment in R&D, says the UNESCO report, remains the “Achilles’ heel” of science and technology innovation (STI) policies in Latin America, with the exception of Brazil, which contributes 60% of the region’s R&D spending. In 2007, gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) in Latin America and the Caribbean represented just 0.67% of GDP, or 3% of global spending on R&D when converted to purchasing power parity. The average GERD/GDP ratio for OECD countries is 2.28%. Not surprisingly, the region contributed only 3.5% of the world total of researchers in 2007, albeit up from 2.9% in 2002. However, nearly half (1.7%) of these were in Brazil alone. The region also contributed a small share of the publications recorded in the Science Citation Index in 2008 (4.9%), with Brazil again contributing over half of these (2.7%). Meanwhile, on another useful indicator of R&D output – patents granted by the Triadic patent offices in the USA, European Union and Japan – Latin America “plays no role at all,” says the report, like most of Africa and Asia. Both the economic structure and the legal framework in the region discourage patenting, it adds.
Nevertheless, some governments in the region are now keen to implement policies favouring innovation, especially Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico, which also happen to account for nine-tenths of the region’s investment in R&D. But two-thirds of R&D in Latin America is still state-funded, with about 40% of this funnelled into universities and the rest into public research institutes. This, says the UNESCO report, is contrary to the OECD average*, where as much as two-thirds of R&D resources come from the business sector. In Brazil, which has a “more adequate institutional structure for fostering innovation” than most other countries in the region, businesses still only spend 0.48% of GDP on R&D – less than one third of the OECD average. Redressing this, says the report, would be a “Herculean task”, as private spending would have to go up from US$ 9.95 billion (in 2008) to US$ 33 billion.
While R&D investment in the region remains low, says the report, its human capital, in terms of the number of skilled researchers in science and engineering, is healthier, having doubled between 2002 and 2007. Once again, just four countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico – account for over 90% of these. Already a region that trains relatively few PhDs, the picture is exacerbated by a significant brain drain, spurred on by low wages and under-use of the human resources at home. Brain drain is as high as 30.9% for Nicaragua and 28.9% for Cuba, though it is low for Brazil (3.3%) and Argentina (4.7%) and moderate for Mexico (14.3%) and Colombia (11.0%). Many of these scientists go to the USA and Spain. A 2001 census revealed 9000 PhDs from Latin America were resident in Spain. Of note is that 95% of the new PhDs in the region come from Brazil and Mexico.
Interestingly, though, in six countries of the region, women hold between 30% and 55% of all academic research positions in higher education institutes. This is higher than most other regions, including the European Union. Women are also more likely to graduate than men and even make up 60% of students in Uruguay, Mexico and Panama and 55% in Venezuela, Paraguay and Brazil. The picture is similar in Cuba, where, in 2008, 53% of all S&T professionals and 60% of all graduates entering science as a career were women. Even so, there is still a virtual barrier – the ‘glass ceiling’ – to women’s progress up the career ladder.
Despite its weaknesses, the region has carved out a prominent position on the world scene for some cutting-edge technologies. Brazil ranks 18th in the world for publications on nanotechnology and the region ranks highly for nanomedicine and nanobiology. Meanwhile, Cuba is at the forefront of vaccine technology and has managed to eradicate preventable diseases by harnessing S&T to social needs. Costa Rica has developed a world-class IT industry, while Brazil has become a leader in the design of jet aircraft, the efficient production of soybeans, oranges and coffee and in manufacturing ethanol from sugarcane to power automobiles. In 2008, Brazil was the world’s second-largest ethanol producer after the USA.
The UNESCO Science Report was written by a team of international experts. It presents an overview of global trends in science and technology, based on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative indicators. It is divided into chapters devoted to the various regions, with spotlights on certain individual countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Turkey and USA). The previous UNESCO science reports were published in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2005.
*In 2008, the OECD average for GERD was 2.27% of GDP, 1.58% of which came from the business sector.