Latin America struggles to absorb PhD students

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Copyright: Concytec

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  • G20 members Brazil, Mexico and Argentina invest relatively little in S&T
  • All countries have more doctoral students than their systems can absorb
  • Using them in productive sectors will create demand for knowledge linked with social development

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“There are two pressing problems for Latin American countries: one is how to link knowledge and social development, something that is not done organically in Latin America because there is no demand. And the other is that, for that demand to exist, doctoral researchers must work in productive sectors of the economy”, said the Argentinian science minister, Lino Barañao,  in reference to the recent 2016 Innovation Report of the G20 Group.
The report differentiates between more countries with more capacity in innovation, which also invest more in science and technology, from the Latin American countries included (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina), which it finds have weaker innovation capacity. 
“Increasing national investments in R&D requires the combination of public and private efforts,” says the OECD in the report, highlighting this as an essential issue. “In more developed economies, business sectors invest more.”
“All countries [included in the report] produce more doctoral researchers than their systems can absorb,” Barañao adds. “In Argentina we have about 1200 new scholars a year and 300 researchers who enter these systems. We need to know what to do with those who are getting educated. Germany and South Korea found success with demand from the private sector — not to mention synergy with Silicon Valley, where there’s a natural connection”,

“It is the transnational character of the Latin American economies which explains more effectively the disconnection between research and productive sectors.”

Diego Hurtado, National University of Saint Martin and Conicet

Barañao was the only minister from the region who participated in the launch of the report at the science ministers’ summit of the G20, which took place in Beijing, China from November 1 to November 4. Nevertheless he takes a dim view of official documents because, he says, the need to achieve consensus on their content means they are too general. 
One of the main issues facing the science sector in the region, and particularly Barañao ('survivor' from the last government of Cristina Kirchner, and from a political camp opposite to that of current Argentinian president Mauricio Macri), is what to do with the great number of researchers educated to doctoral level in the last decade who do not participate in productive sectors of the economy or who needs to be helped by the State.
In an interview with SciDev.Net, Barañao remarked that he wants to change the perception that “science is like a symphony orchestra”  — something that is good to have but that has no more impact than the work of Argentinian Nobel prizes Bernardo Houssay and Luis Leloir, he says.
Barañao highlighted collaborations with private enterprises as valuable moves for science to make impact.
Diego Hurtado, professor of history of science at the National University of Saint Martin and researcher at Conicet, Argentina’s national scientific and technical research council, sees a less hopeful landscape for such collaboration because of the new regional political context.

“The G20 report explains that the science minister [of Argentina] is evaluating how to measure private R&D, but in the first eight months of 2016, the actual government’s policy produced a drop in industrial activity of more than 5 per cent and decidedly favoured financial and primary sectors of the economy”.
For Hurtado, “It is the transnational character of the Latin American economies which explains more effectively the disconnection between research and productive sectors”.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Latin America and Caribbean edition.