Brazil on cutting-edge of world's aeronautics industry.
Latin America Lags in Innovation and Technology
By Diego Cevallos*
Although there have been important efforts in recent years, Latin America lags far behind the industrialized countries in the global science and technology race.
MEXICO CITY, Feb 18 (Tierramérica).- Brazil is the world leader in manufacturing small aircraft. In Argentina it was discovered that substances in the male impotence drug Viagra can also treat sleep disorders. A non-polluting reactor was developed in Mexico to separate gold and silver from ore. All of this thanks to the work of home-grown scientists.
These are international-caliber achievements in science and technology, but they fail to compensate for the gap that separates Latin America from the industrialized world.
Although some governments are making an effort to bridge the technology divide, "one doesn't see substantive changes," Gonzalo Rivas, head of the science and technology division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), told Tierramérica.
Brazil is the region's leader when it comes to investing, with 1.05 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) set aside for science and technology. But it lags far behind Israel (4.5 percent), Switzerland (3.7 percent) and the United States (2.7 percent) -- and doesn't quite reach the 1.4 percent earmarked by China.
According to Rivas, Argentina is second in Latin America in the effort to improve its performance in this field.
The Argentine Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation was created in December. Investment in this area grew from 0.3 percent GDP in 2003 to 0.6 percent in 2006. The goal is to reach one percent GDP in 2010.
Mexico set up a plan in 2007 with sights set on the year 2030 for joining the global group of 20 countries "with high competitiveness in science, technology and innovation," according to official documents.
But for now its annual investment is just 0.49 percent GDP, 0.01 less than investment in 2000. The goal for 2030 is to reach 2.5 percent.
According to the 2006 IDB report "Education, Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean", despite the increase in investments and yields in some countries, support for development of innovation in the region has not been proportional to the need or the challenges faced.
In general, said Rivas, Latin American governments and business leaders talk about how important investment in innovation is, but "they never put up the resources."
The lack of support translates into official statistics that are "not very reliable" and lag behind the times, the expert said in a telephone interview from Washington DC.
The IDB has been working since January with Argentina, Chile, Panama and Uruguay on support projects for developing science and technology.
Brazil's secretary of technological development and innovation, Guilherme Pereira, told Tierramérica that his country achieved regional leadership because of its broad plan of action, which was linked with industrial policy and the private sector.
"Innovation is priority," which is why the Innovation Act was passed in 2004, as well as another law that regulates tax incentives aimed at encouraging technological creation, he said.
The number of articles by Brazilian authors published in international scientific journals has risen in recent years to two percent of the total, which "is equal to Brazil's portion of the global GDP," said Pereira.
In Brazil, patent requests -- another way to measure innovation, along with the number of doctorates awarded -- surpassed 23,000 per year in 2005. But two-thirds were requests presented by foreigners, according to official figures.
The 2007-2008 Human Development Report, of the United Nations Development Program, stated that between 2000 and 2005 Brazilian inventors obtained, on average, one patent per year per one million inhabitants.
In Argentina, which designate fewer resources for science and technology than its neighbor, there were four patents per million people in that same period -- the highest in Latin America. Mexico had the same rate as Brazil of one patent per million inhabitants.
For the 2000-2005 period, Norway registered 103 patents per year per one million people, Japan registered 857 and the United States 244.
No government officials in Latin America deny that the region lags far behind in science and technology, but promises to catch up with the world's science leaders are multiplying.
Luiz de Miranda, metallurgical engineer and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said he was thankful that Brazil had developed an environment for innovation and for obtaining patents.
"The problem is that once you have the patent" one has to face a market dominated by transnational corporations, he said in a Tierramérica interview.
De Miranda created a coating that protects metal from corrosion, but his invention, the result of three decades of research, has yet to reach the market due to lack of commercial support.
But that is not always the case. Also in that country, Embraer, the Brazilian aeronautics company founded in 1969 by the government and privatized in 1994, is now the world leader in the manufacture of small airplanes (up to 120 passengers), thanks to the innovations of Brazilian engineers and designers.
In Argentina, scientists at the University of Quilmes discovered in 2006 that sildenafil, the main compound in the impotence pharmaceutical Viagra, is also useful in treating sleep disorders. Their research was published in the U.S. journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" in May 2007.
In Mexico, researchers at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) formed a partnership in 2007 with a mineral ore processing company to operate an electrochemical reactor that eliminates several steps in the traditional methods for separating out gold and silver from ore, as well as being less costly and generating no waste. Offers are now coming from abroad to purchase the invention.
Rivas noted that there are indeed important efforts in science and technology, but that the region has a long way to go to bridge the gap with the industrialized world.
It requires more public investment, "decisive involvement by the private sector, and that universities stop their navel-gazing tendencies and open up more to society and particularly to the productive sector," he said.
More training of human resources and higher-quality education is needed. "The percentage of the population that reaches the university system remains very low, and with a strong trend towards humanities fields," noted the IDB expert.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Mario Osava in Brazil and Marcela Valente in Argentina.