A majority of Latin American countries suffer from worthy talk but little stable R&D funding. Long-term strategies should be a priority.
At first glance, science in Latin America and the Caribbean seems to be thriving.
Take key indicators such as investment in research and development (R&D) and the number of scientists and peer-reviewed papers. A 2008 report by the Network on Science and Technology Indicators — Ibero-American and Inter-American (RICYT) shows that investment in science and technology (S&T) across the region grew by 60 per cent from 1997 to 2006.
And the number of researchers and technicians in the region increased by 85 per cent, while scientific output doubled as measured by the number of papers listed by the Science Citation Index (see Latin American S&T investment shows major growth).
But a closer look at the figures shows that while science in the region as a whole may be on the up, the same is not true for many countries. Indeed, the distribution of resources and investment in S&T is heavily imbalanced. Four countries dominated the region's scientific inputs and outputs in 1997 — Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile — and still do so today.
In 1997, these four countries accounted for about 90 per cent of the region's investment in R&D and more than 90 per cent of scientists. That was still true in 2006.
Funding instability is rife
So why does the rest of the continent contribute so little?
Many factors are responsible. But one that does not help is the lack of stable support for S&T within countries. Building a scientific base requires long-term planning and investment. It can take years before a research programme, investigating new vaccines or drugs, for example, results in a usable product that meets socioeconomic needs.
But such programmes depend on stable, annual science budgets, which in Latin America and the Caribbean are rare.
The results of this kind of instability are clear: in the past four decades, the 73 universities and polytechnics in Ecuador published an average of just four papers every five years.
Brazil illustrates the other side of the story. It has maintained a steady growth in government support for S&T, more than doubling funding between 2000 and 2007. The country is currently injecting nearly US$20 billion a year into S&T, more than half of all R&D funding in Latin America and the Caribbean.
No shortage of talk
Plenty of politicians seem committed to S&T, and can certainly talk the talk. In the past year alone, we have heard the Bolivian vice president calling on universities to invest more in science; the Colombian vice-president stating that the country will accelerate its innovation system; and the Ecuadorian secretariat of S&T announcing US$9 million in scholarships to train scientists better (see Bolivia: Train less lawyers and more scientists, Colombia's vice-president leads innovation drive and Ecuador: US$9 million for training scientists).
But when it comes to long-term commitment, their words can ring hollow. There is much more political capital to be made out of announcing an immediate, multimillion dollar boost to science funding than in planning a long-term, sustainable funding strategy. So politicians fall into the trap of making hasty announcements without doing their homework on the implications of implementing their decisions.
In Venezuela, for example, President Hugo Chavez has called for a reform of the country's scientific institutes, and earlier this year announced he would set up about 40 new universities. But the money to do this has to come from somewhere and scientists across the country are complaining of budget cuts and claim that Chavez does not have the resources to support his proposals (see Government-scientist tensions escalate in Venezuela).
If the other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean want to follow Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico to become global players in S&T, they must concentrate on a long-term funding strategy — even if this comes at the expense of voter-friendly, headline-grabbing pronouncements.
Latin America and Caribbean coordinator, SciDev.Net
Commissioning editor, SciDev.Net