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  • Latin America Analysis: The challenge of training scientists

In addition to programmes for training abroad, Latin America needs measures and organisations for the promotion of science, writes Carla Almeida.

Constant age-old concerns about training human resources of a sufficiently high standard, and in sufficient numbers, to meet the demands of competitive science, are finally beginning to result in more appropriate measures being taken in Latin America. Some of these measures have even made headlines in a recent edition of the magazine Science.

SPEED READ

  • Countries in the region are investing more and more in training people abroad through grant-awarding programmes.
  • In Brazil, there are concerns about the impact that the costly Ciencia sin Fronteras could have on education and research, domestically.
  • If the Brazillian scientific community is encouraged to participate in these programmes, they could serve as a model for other Latin American countries.

Through programmes such as Becas Chile in Chile, Universidades de Excelencia in Ecuador, Cienciasin Fronteras in Brazil, and BEC.AR in Argentina, countries in the region are investing more and more in the training of people abroad, and looking to consolidate, expand, and internationalize their scientific research.

Of all of these initiatives, it is the Brazilian programme, with its ambitious objectives, that stands out. While its counterparts have announced that they will award up to 6,000 grants over three or four years, Ciencias sin Fronteras (CsF) aims to ensure that come 2015, 101,000 Brazilians will be studying at the most prestigious universities in the world.

By the end of 2012, Brazil, which had awarded 5,000 grants for study abroad prior to the creation of CsF, had already sent more than 17,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students to educational institutions and research institutes in 30 countries, through the programme.

The CsF's budget is also attracting attention: at a sum of 3.2 billion reals (approximately US$1.5 billion), it is more than half of the country's annual expenditure on science, technology, and innovation, the idea being that the federal government uses this sum to fund 75,000 grants, with private enterprise providing the rest.

Concerns about appropriateness

While the figures are impressive, enthusiasm for the Brazilian initiative is far from unanimous. Is it wise to invest so much in training abroad? Will the country be able to absorb these highly-qualified professionals? What about areas that aren't covered by the programme? These are just some of the questions being asked by Brazilian students, teachers, and researchers.

The fact is, the magnitude of the project and the resources involved is at odds with recent cutbacks suffered in the field of science, domestically. In 2012, the budget for science was R$5,200 million; R$1,480 million less than anticipated. 2011 saw the promised budget of R$7,400 cut by 23 per cent. All of this comes in the face of fierce opposition from the scientific community, who are anticipating that the scenario for 2013, to be decided in February, will be better.

Given this context, it is only natural that there are concerns about the financial impact on education and research that this heavy investment in foreign institutions might have, at a domestic level.

For a few decades, now, Brazil has concentrated its efforts on bolstering postgraduate courses. This has resulted in increased, if cautious, participation in scientific research at an international level. How do you ensure that this will continue when the focus shifts?

Given the often precarious working conditions of Brazilian researchers, with grants for study and research being highly sought after and few stable, well-paid posts available, it is also pertinent to ask what is being done to ensure that this critical mass returns and that positions are found for them. Will conditions be favourable to them putting into practice what they have acquired abroad?

As it stands, the choice of disciplines prioritised by the programme — engineering, medicine, and technology — leaves no doubt as to the government's commitment to applied sciences, thus highlighting its obsession with innovation, the very word "innovation" itself having been added to the name of the country's Ministry of Science and Technology in 2011.

Leaders in the field have made technology a priority, to the detriment of basic research and humanities. It is up to representatives of these fields to fight in order to ensure that new government directives facilitate a harmonious balance between all areas of national science policy.

Another important issue preventing the full implementation of the programme, particularly where candidates for undergraduate courses are concerned, is language. Young Brazilians do not have the proficiency in a second language that is required when seeking a grant. One consequence of this is the high demand for courses in Portugal, which is the main destination for CsF students at this level.

Opening gateways to participation

There can be no doubt that investment in human resources is an important means of access to cutting-edge science and economic competitiveness. Nonetheless, a great deal of caution is necessary when investing unprecedented levels of resources in a single initiative. To this end, the CsF must adapt and the scientific community must rally in order to help improve it and not just criticise.

At a time when science in Brazil is leading the way in Latin America, accounting for 54 per cent of research carried out in the region, a successful initiative for the training of human resources in the country, one that has been created and adapted with the permanent participation of the scientific community, could serve as a model for other Latin American countries, even those countries whose policies are already headed in this direction.

If programmes such as the CsF's are established throughout Latin America, there is a very good chance that science in the region will develop. Furthermore, if these initiatives forge strong links between neighbouring countries with shared realities, difficulties, and needs, then a promising Latin American scientific community can emerge.

Carla Almeida

Carla Almeida is a Brazilian science journalist and has been a SciDev.Net contributor since 2005. She is currently the editor of Ciência Hoje On-line, a science communication website, and a researcher in the public understanding of science.

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