I am someone who thinks people in the United States pay far too little attention and give far too little credit to what goes on in Central and South America. For that reason, I try to follow some of the larger news developments in that region, particularly if it has to do with science and engineering. Thus, it definitely caught my attention last week when I saw a report that the Argentine government proposed a new national science strategy, a plan called (I think translated correctly) “Innovative Argentina 2020.” (hat tip to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT).
As far as I can tell, the new plan sets some huge and admirable goals—I am agnostic about whether the nation has the resources and leadership to achieve them—the main features of which are 1) triple the investment in science, 2) double the number of researchers, and 3) get Argentine researchers who have settled elsewhere to return to their homeland.
The time frame for the first two goals is seven years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find anything that lays out a roadmap for either one, or explains the funding sources for expanding the National System of Science, Technology and Innovation.
However, a Google translation of the story I have linked to above seems to indicate that the repatriation issue is a touchy one. Lino Barañao, the government’s science and technology minister, asked rhetorically while presenting the plan, which of the nations great resources were the most poorly managed? He said that most people would suggest the answer is oil. Barañao said the right answer is “even more embarrassing—it is the brains of Argentine scientists.” He went on to say that, in essence, Argentina generously gave free brainpower, and the ability it has to generate prosperity, to the northern hemisphere, and because education in Argentina is free, this means there was “a clear net transfer of resources.”
I don’t claim to know all the factors that come into play when an Argentine scientist or engineer is making a decision about whether to stay or leave, but I do know that there was a time under an adverse political and military situation in Argentina when people with or pursuing degrees were persona non grata, and often among the “disappeared.” Indeed, Barañao, himself, noted there was a time when researchers were “considered dangerous, or at least expendable, ‘because the technology was coming from outside’.”
Lack of respect may be another problem. Barañao explained that because of the lack of support, scientists believe, “We do not ask anything [of Argentina], but do not ask anything of us.” In these circumstances some sit and distance themselves from a society they consider not sufficiently appreciated. The story also speaks of other cultural issues:
Barañao spoke of strengthening the system that involves more collaboration, and that both science universities and companies must pull in the same direction, so that citizens actually receive something in return for their taxes. There is reticence among all the parties, in which the scientist sees the entrepreneur as a selfish entity only thinking of profit, and the employer sees the researcher as a parasite that sucks but never produces anything but sterile knowledge. Barañao said these ideas are false and must be banished by all sides.
I traveled in Argentina around 2003 and, as I recall, the nation then was trying to elevate science and technology, so I assume the new plan is an attempt at achieve some exponential growth. The story reports that investment in science and technology in 2002 was about 0.44 percent of GDP, and the new plan will increase funding from the current 0.65 percent of GDP to 1.65 percent in 2020.
The author of the story injects some of his own opinion, writing that after listening to the plan, “You do not stop thinking about the senseless stupidity that is to ignore the brightest minds of a country.” But he goes on to note that not every Argentine leader has a firm grip on science, and reports that President Cristina Fernandez, bumbled her role in announcing the plan by asserting, for example, that “diabetes is a disease of affluent people” and that Argentine Amaranth also has some essential amino acids “that we do not have.” Of course, Argentina does not have a lock on the stockpile of politicians who haven’t got a clue about S&T.