Friday, July 28, 2006

A regional view

This certainly won't be new to anyone in the region but is important to summarize Latin America 's position in science and technology, and the results are terrible. In a report done by the Inter-American Development Bank (get the numbers here, also check the report on higher education) the data was hard to believe. As an example the whole region spends $11 billion in research and development, this might sound like an awful lot of money but now consider that a single asian country, South Korea, expends $12 billion, more than all the latin american region!

The reasons for this are difficult to pinpoint, but as far as I can say the whole topic isn't in the political agenda. In the past electoral process the candidates rarely mentioned it, maybe they just expected that inversions will arrive to a country that is unable to create any new product. In this regard Mexico registers the ludicrous amount of 82 patents a year! Argentina registers 62 patents and the regional leader, Brazil, registers 130 patents a year. There are many US universities that register many more patents. Let's compare this numbers with Asia, Japan registered 36 000 patents, South Korea around 3000 and China (that has comparable or higher levels of poverty) registered 300.

The research is sponsored mainly by the state which is a rare situation in the world. In the "communist" China 61% of R&D is paid by the bussiness sector in contrast with the 32% in Latin America. The bussiness sector inversion in R&D of course isn't the result of some philantropic ideology but the result of effective state policies, as an example many american universities get money for research from donations that many companies do in exchange of fiscal privileges. But don't expect that transnational companies will put their money in countries with high taxes, inefficient spending, legal uncertainty (remember Evo Morales seize of refineries and oil extraction plants or the seizure of bank deposits in Argentina in 2001).

Even more important, Latin America lacks the necessary human resources to attract R&D inversions that usually go to places like India or Singapur. Take the microprocessors company Intel as an example, most of the region's countries were shocked when Intel decided to move its inversions to Costa Rica (where president Arias removed the army and used those resources for education) instead of the obvious candidates: Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Even further in the past Intel had looked at the region for a big R&D plant but eventually decided to do it in Haifa, Israel (which is now under fire, literally). In this regard the educative levels are pathetic, in the PISA mathematics test the average score of mexican students was 385, the american students scored 483 and japanese students 534.

Which are the results of this lag in science, research and education? The results are that the region is the slowest-growing one in the development world, while Latin America is projected to grow by 3.7 percent in 2007, sub-Saharan Africa will grow by 5.4 percent, the Middle East and North Africa by 5.1 percent, South Asia by 6.2 percent, East Asia by 8.1 percent and Eastern Europe by 5.1 percent. It is imperative for the region to understand that the current situation is untenable: the oil prices won't be sky-high forever and the agricultural and metal export prices increase will certainly decrease in future.

In a region where its leaders speak about the recent export bonanza as the product of their economic wisdom, the future might be gray when the bonanza bubble bursts unless the correct measures are seized. Certainly science, research and education should be the prioritary model for the region's growth and as Ireland and Asiatic example shows, it works.

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