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Microsoft has created a virtual research institute to allow scientists in Latin America and the Caribbean to collaborate.

The virtual centre ― The Latin American Collaborative Research Federation ― was launched last week (9 May) during Microsoft's Latin American Research Summit in Viña del Mar, Chile.

It will enable scientists to develop information and communication technologies (ICTs) and increase research capacity to solve socio-economic problems in areas such as agriculture, education, healthcare, alternative energy and the environment.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC) and the Universidad de Chile will lead the virtual institute in conjunction with four other Latin American and Caribbean universities ― selected by a bidding process ― to be announced in December 2007.

Microsoft has committed US$930,000 to finance the first three years of the project, according to Microsoft's external research director Sailesh Chutani.

Ignacio Casas, professor of computer science at the Chilean Universidad Católica (PUC) and the project's leader, told SciDev.Net that the aim is to maximise the global impact of Latin America's ICT research.

The project will include designing tutorials for secondary school science and mathematics, mobile technology to bring healthcare to rural areas, and data collection ― from satellites and global positioning systems ― relevant to farmers, such as weather forecasting and land mapping to find appropriate areas for cultivation.  

A number of other organisations will also support the scheme financially, including the Inter-American Development Bank, Chile's Science and Technology Council, and the Latin American Cooperation of Advanced Networks.

Chutani explained that Latin American universities find attracting funds difficult because they all work on the same problems, and by working together they can overcome this problem.

Beau Flores, president of the Peruvian Academic Network, said, "This is an important leap for the region." He added that it would not only benefit researchers, but also the environment and civil society, and would boost productivity in many sectors.

Flores hoped more universities from the region would be incorporated into the federation in the coming years, "in order to achieve a more equitable development for all Latin American people".

Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, said that most Latin American countries spend less than one per cent of gross domestic product on research and development, compared to three per cent in the most technologically developed nations. "They have to pool their resources," said Mundie.