Rebuilding Argentina’s long-term scientific future

Daniel Filmus Copyright: Ministerio de Educación, Argentina

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Science and technology have long been neglected issues in Latin America. An agricultural past and a cultural disdain for research and development, even as tools of industrial growth, are both partly responsible for the fact that the region, which houses 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces only 3 per cent of its gross economic output.

Argentina is no exception. At the beginning of the 20th century it promised to become one of the world’s superpowers, and educated generations of brilliant scientists, including Bernardo Houssay, winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and Luis Federico Leloir, who received the 1970 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But four years before Leloir’s win, the country’s scientific system had already entered a steady decline. A military attack in 1966 on the University of Buenos Aires had provoked a massive migration of professors and researchers. 

Under the rule of dictator Juan Carlos Onganía, Argentina’s government slashed research budgets for universities and scientific institutions, which it considered hotbeds of political opposition. When Argentinean industry needed new technology to become more competitive, it turned to foreign sources.

Three decades of economic downturn further reduced research budgets, leading to a massive brain drain. This turned into a flood during the most violent regime, which lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Today, Argentina invests only 0.4 per cent of its gross national product in science and technology — well below the 1 per cent widely accepted as a goal for developing countries.

Daniel Filmus, the country’s new minister of education, science and technology, is determined that the low political priority given in recent years both to science and to its integration into the economy must change. And he is taking an active role in ensuring that this happens.

A sociologist who has carried out extensive research into education policy at Conicet, Argentina’s main science funding agency, Filmus has previously been Secretary of Education of the City of Buenos Aires, and director of the Buenos Aires chapter of Flacso (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences). Ricardo Sametband spoke to him about his plans.

When you took office, you merged the ministries of education, and science and technology. Why?

Education, science and technology are the main pillars on which the new knowledge society is based. We believe they should therefore be under one ministry, working together in a coordinated fashion towards a common goal.

In addition, more than half of the country’s research in science and technology is carried out in government-funded universities, so it seemed logical to bring them together.

You have also said that you want to encourage scientists to work with schools to bridge the gap between them and students.

We want to make science more attractive [to both school children and university students]. We’re implementing a programme to allow scientists to help improve science teaching in primary and secondary schools. We’re also organising science fairs, guided visits to high-tech labs and science courses for teachers. And we’re going to invest US$1 million this year to attract new students to university courses in engineering.

These measures were never taken before because the universities, laboratories and research institutions that make up the educational and scientific systems operated independently of each other.

In the world’s largest economies, much emphasis is put on an individual’s qualifications. People have to study for many years to get good jobs, and continue getting qualifications throughout their working life. Can Argentina support this kind of educational structure?

It not only can, it must. Such a strategy is fundamental. Corporations must contribute financially to this, and should also participate in developing training programmes.

We also want to stimulate private-sector participation in research and development, of which we have very little right now. For example, [to stimulate private-sector investment] a condition of government loans and grants for innovation projects is that companies [must] invest in the project too.

We’re are going to give companies more opportunity to receive [government] financing for their R&D projects. We will also start a venture capital programme to finance cutting-edge projects.

Many Argentineans feel that scientists are not connected to industry or anything that may help the country’s economy.

I think that is a false image. It is definitely something that belongs to the past. For example, next year (2004), two-thirds of the budget of the department of science will be used to finance applied science projects that help solve social problems such as [those created by] droughts and floods, making use of resources such as our high professional skills in biomedicine and information technology.

But we won’t forget basic research. One goes hand-in-hand with the other.

How will you finance this increased spending in education and science?

Among other things, we hope to convince the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund to agree that 3 to 5 per cent of our external debt payments can be [diverted into an] investment in education and science (see Argentina seeks science funding from debt repayments). In return, the country promises to use those funds in a transparent and efficient way, under the supervision of UNESCO.

Our priority is to strengthen our activities at both ends — basic education, and scientific and technological development — to help the country build a stable strategic policy in this area.

Having more financial resources to invest in education, science and technology will allow us to grow and strengthen our abilities to pay off our international debt. We want to use the money to finance new research projects and technology-based start-up companies, and to strengthen our educational system.

Any reform of the national educational system will take several years before it yields results. How do you reassure those who aren’t willing to wait so long?

Most of the time, people are not willing to wait for long-term results because they are uncertain about the future, or don’t see clearly the path the government is taking. But, wherever we want to go, we must take a first step. And that is what we’re doing: allocating more money to education and science for 2004 is a signal that nobody can ignore, and should help to meet people’s expectations.

At the end of the 19th century, education was at the heart of our model of economic and social growth. We were proud to see the country develop and consolidate in that way. Argentina’s comparative advantages during the first half of the next century were based on working within a long-term perspective.

Today’s teachers, professors and scientists lack such support , even though it is needed to regain the place that Argentina previously established for itself, thanks to its education, science and technology. We are trying to re-establish that model.