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Last week saw the launch in São Paulo, Brazil, of our second regional network, SciDev.Net Latin America. A public meeting underlined the need for such an initiative in the region.

At first glance, it might seem strange that an organisation such as SciDev.Net, whose role is to promote the communication of information about science and technology in developing countries, should decide to apply a significant amount of effort to Latin America. After all, much of the region, to judge at least from the relatively affluent lifestyles of some of those living in urban centres such as Mexico City or São Paulo, hardly fits the conventional picture of the 'Third World'.

Furthermore, unlike parts of the world (including much of Africa) in which science and technology communication is still in its infancy, the same cannot be said of countries such as Brazil, Chile or Colombia. Here, an established scientific infrastructure, built around networks of university departments and government laboratories with long and impressive track records, has spawned a significant science communication industry. Science journalism thrives in many of the region's daily and weekly newspapers, and there are several thousand scientific and biomedical journals published in Spanish and Portuguese.

Nevertheless, significant needs do exist, as became clear at a public meeting organised in São Paulo last week by SciDev.Net on the topic "Science, Communication and Society: The Latin American Experience" (see Media 'vital' to Latin American science). A large proportion of those in the region live below the poverty level, experiencing the same health and nutritional problems, and often as low a level of public services, as those in parts of Africa and South Asia. This is just as true of the slums of major cities in Latin America's richer nations as it is more widely of the region's more obviously 'poor' countries, such as much of Central America.

Furthermore, the need to promote enhanced science and technology communication has been strengthened by the current crisis that is gripping many of Latin America's major economies. Among their other problems, these now face a severe lack of funding for research, a fall-out from overall cuts in public expenditure triggered by reduced tax income and rising social security and other costs (particularly acute in countries such as Argentina and Venezuela). Ironically, this is occurring precisely at a time when investment in science is required more than ever to ensure the long-term health of these economies.

A new regional network

It is against this background that last week's meeting in São Paulo saw the official launch of SciDev.Net Latin America (or, to give its local name, SciDev.Net América Latina). This is the second such regional network to be created. Like the first, SciDev.Net Africa, which was launched in Entebbe, Uganda last October, the network will seek to work with individuals and institutions to enhance the communication of science and technology. These efforts will be guided by an advisory panel — which met for the first time in São Paulo last week — formed of members drawn from across the region.

At the heart of the activities of the regional network will be an enhanced regional gateway on the SciDev.Net website. As at present, this brings together all material appearing on the website that relates to science and technology in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the new version, which is due to be unveiled next week as part of a general overhaul of the design of the website, will have several additional features.

For example, the new regional gateway will contain news and opinion articles that have been specially commissioned for this part of the website. Just as important is the fact that all material will appear — at least in summary form — in three languages, namely English, Spanish and Portuguese. This reflects the fact that, although English has become the dominant language in which scientists communicate with each other, broader communication between science and society can only be effectively done in local languages.

Enhancing a regional scientific identity

The new gateway will, hopefully, make a significant contribution not only to increasing knowledge about science and technology within the region, but also raising awareness of how both activities can contribute to meeting the needs of the region. Yet this is not an end in itself. As various speakers at last week's meeting recognised, there are various less tangible goals to which we hope to be able to contribute.

One of these is to raise the scientific self-esteem of Latin American countries. A lack of investment in science is partly the result of the impression held by many Latin American politicians (and others) that this an activity which is done better by — and can therefore be safely left to — the industrialised world. But it is important for such individuals to realise that this is not the case. And that means learning more about domestic scientific achievements, even when these do not reach the international scientific press.

Linked to this, as was also pointed out last week, is the need for greater regional collaboration in science and technology. Too often Latin American researchers still prefer to collaborate with colleagues in Europe and the United States, rather than in their own region. The reasons, which include the fact that many have obtained their postgraduate training in these countries, are easy to understand. But increased regional collaboration on joint projects — for which greater self-esteem will be an important spur — is an essential component of efforts to boost the scientific and technological competitiveness of the whole region (as Europe has successfully demonstrated through its Framework Programme).

Meeting the requirements of modern democracies

There is a third, practical, reason for encouraging improved science and technology communication in Latin America. This is the fact that all modern knowledge-based democracies require better knowledge about the scientific and technological aspects of issues that affect the lives of all individuals in society. As Hebe Vessuri, head of the department of science studies at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) in Caracas, put it: "we need to know more about science in order to know what to do with it".

SciDev.Net Latin America does not pretend to be the only organisation — or indeed the only website — concerned with such issues. Part of the vibrancy of the science communication scene in the region lies in the fact that a number of other initiatives already exist, both in print and, increasingly, electronic form. One of our goals is to find practical ways of collaborating with these, seeking to complement their activities while respecting their strengths and achievements.

The unique role that SciDev.Net Latin America can play is to provide a regional overview of these efforts, sharing news and information across countries (for example on issues such as intellectual property rights or genetically modified crops), while linking our coverage of such issues — through the main website — to international events, trends and debates. Our success in doing so will depend heavily on the support and input we receive from users of the website. Please let us have your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

© SciDev.Net 2003