Science and development - a Latin American perspective

Science and development.
A Latin American perspective

Ana Maria CETTO
Instituto de Fisica, UNAM, Mexico

1. A brief outlook into the end of the 20th century

As scientists concerned by the tremendous development inequalities of all sorts that plague the world map of today, and trying to understand how these inequalities can be met, we ask our selves: what role do the sciences play in relation to development, what can their possible role be for the future?

These questions certainly find more than one answer -and by no means a simple one-, depending on at least the historical, geographical, political and cultural context. The aim of this paper is to sketch some possible even if partial answers from a Latin American perspective of today. In this region, as in the rest of the world, the present evolution is in various ways not quite what the best specialists had foreseen two decades ago, and certainly not what most of us had expected or dreamed of. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions with a certain degree of certainty; but we shall nevertheless attempt to figure out some meaningful answers.

For this purpose, and as a sort of prelude, let us start by looking at a selection of statistical data for 1980-1990 that are relevant to science and technology, complemented with some indicators of national development, for a dozen countries of the region (table 1). As they refer to the recent past and are taken from a UNESCO publication, one should consider these indicators to be reli able. Even so, some of them, when looked at more carefully, seem strange and surprising. They are indeed so disparate, that there would be little use in extrapolating them to future times - not even to the present date of 1995-. And perhaps it would be better not to extrapolate them, be cause the results turn out not to be very encouraging in general.

One first striking feature is the decrease in GDP in various countries during the period considered; in fact, this process has accelerated in the last five years. On top of that, the expenditure on higher education relative to the GDP has decreased in most of the countries reported. In El Salvador it went from the low figure of 3.9% to less than half of it, as opposed to the military expenditure in the country. Also Ecuador shows a drastic reduction in education expenditure and in number of students and R&D personnel, while at the same time the number of scientific publications seems to have more than doubled. Many of the Latin American countries have suffered from a very high annual inflation rate in the decade referred to, have decreased their domestic investment (GDI) while their populations are still growing in number, and are now burdened by a heavy debt for which they cannot even pay the interests. In most countries the percentages of university students and of R&D personnel are extremely low, and are still going down; moreover, it is recognized that the quality of education has in general become poorer.

It is interesting to observe that there seems to be no clear correlation between GDP, national investment, and scientific activity, al though it is true that some countries are on the average better off than others. But, most impres- sive of all is to see the enormous differences -in some cases up, in others down- in figures refer ring to one and the same country only ten years apart, as well as the enormous contrasts between neighbouring countries. Such differences are clear symptoms of a highly unstable and heteroge neous evolution.

Table 1. Selection of indicators relevant to science and technology,
for 12 Latin American countries.
Taken from UNESCO World Science Report, second ed., 1996.

country      GDP per     GDI av.  Inflation Tertiary-level  Education   R&D pers.    Scient. 
              capita     annual   av.annual   students per    exp.      per 10000   public. per
            US$ 1988    growth %   rate %      10000 inh.   % of GDP      inh.       mill. inh. 
period      1982 1990   1980-90   1980-91    1980  1990    1980  1990   1980  1990   1980  1990  
Mexico       250  227    -2.0       66        139   155     4.7   4.1    1.9   2.6    16    16
Costa Rica   152  169     0.7       23        243   246     7.8   4.6    1.4   5.4    42    29
El Salvador  103  104    -0.6       14         37   151     3.9   1.8    1.2   0.3     -     1
Nicaragua     85   50    -3.7      584        126    84     3.4     -    2.0   2.1    0.4   1.3
Cuba           -    -       -        -        157   228     7.2   6.6    5.5  12       6    14
Bolivia      107   89    -6.2      263        149   197     4.4   3.0      -   1.4     4     4
Ecuador      137  126    -4.2       38        332   195     5.6   2.8    1.9   0.8    1.7    4
Venezuela    388  330    -7.0       21        204   285     4.4   4.1    2.8   2.8    29    22
Brazil       217  222     2.2      328        116   107     3.6   4.6    3.0   4.3    17    20
Argentina    230  267    -7.0      417        174   329     3.6     -    3.4   3.5    46    60
Chile        205  253     0.6       20        130   194     4.6   3.7    1.9   3.2    98    84
Paraguay     157  156     1.2       25         85    77     1.5     -      -     -    0.5   12

Indeed, however one looks at it, the development of our countries has in recent times been quite unstable and erratic, and very much influenced by external factors, particularly by international and transnational financial and trade institutions, which contribute to determine the models and patterns of development as well as the practical measures to implement these models. However, despite the common external factors and pressures acting on them, the various countries of the region have undergone very different evolutions, as different as are also their internal conditions; in fact these external pressures are not in general aimed at reducing the inequalities. Such strong national and regional disparities, social, economic, educational, cultural, etc., impose severe limits on the pace of future development. The most modern sectors within a country or a region, which represent a minority, tend naturally to be slowed down by the most neglected ones, which unfor tunately constitute the large majority. To overcome this situation of sharp contrasts and inequali ties is of course a requisite for a healthy national development. This is one of the major challenges of present-day Latin America. To know ourselves and, on the basis of our needs, re sources and aspirations, to define where we want to head, is another big challenge that for a long time has not been met.

Under such circumstances, what has happened to science and technology in Latin America, and what can one expect for it and from it in the near future? The differences between countries make it difficult to present a global description that applies to all of them, and one would better refer to a detailed study, country by country and for every scientific discipline (see, e.g., the chapter on Latin America in the UNESCO World Science Report referred to above). Nevertheless, there are general traits that are roughly characteristic of the sub-continent, some of them related to the data of table 1, which can be summarized as follows:(footnote 1)

2. Science and dependence

In the old and in the newly industrialized countries, scientific research has become along this cen tury an essential element for economic and social progress. In what is called by some experts the Third (scientific-technical) Revolution, a rapid scientific and technological transformation has taken place in those countries, in close linkage with the productive system and bearing visible consequences on day-to-day activites. Such process of development, however, has not taken place in the so-called -paradoxically- developing countries, whose economy depends to a great extent on foreign knowledge and on the use of finished products imported from abroad, mainly from the North. This is, very clearly, the case in Latin America; our signs of `modernity' are to a large extent mere reflections or adaptations of the advances produced in the developed world. It turns out, therefore, that our nations are entering into the post-modern era of globalization, with out having really accomplished a genuine process of modernization.

To have an idea of how this situation has come about, it might be useful to go back very briefly to history. Let us start by recalling that what is now Latin America was once the seat of millenary cultures, some of which represented advanced civilizations with considerable achievements in the arts, sciences, technologies, and complex forms of political and social organization. Take as ex amples the advanced agricultural systems of incas and aztecs, the mayan astronomy and mathe- matics, the extended and well-established use of medicinal plants, etc. It is recognized that the general intellectual level of Europe in the 15th century was in many instances inferior to that of the centers of high civilization in the New Continent, although already in those times there was a remarkable disparity between different cultures and populations throughout the region.

When our territories were colonized, deep changes were brought about; the social tissues of local populations were disrupted, their cultures were marginalized, most indigenous industries were wiped out, and self-sufficiency was abolished. The political and educational systems were taken over by the conquerors, and priority was given to the teaching of religion and the Christian faith. Shortly after the conquest there was in the main cities of the conquered territories some intellec- tual activity and even a limited interest in the sciences. But the two centuries that followed repre- sent a poor period in the history of Spain and Portugal, both politically and intellectually, and the colonies suffered the consequences of this circumstance. Three centuries of colonial rule have had a deep and long-lasting impact. Most nations of Latin America gained their political independence over 170 years ago, but they have not succeeded in entirely getting rid of all consequences of co lonialism. Empoverished and destroyed by several years of independence wars, with worn out so cial, legal and political structures that had ceased to function properly even under the Crown, beset by all the contradictions of colonial society, the new nations tried to consolidate themselves struggling against internal political problems and external pressures, debts and invasions, while at the same time in Europe modern capitalism was rapidly advancing along the paths opened by the industrial revolution. By the end of last century the scientific and technological gap was clearly there, and since then it has become only more visible. In particular, our countries still lag much behind in the systematized production of knowledge.

It is clear that as long as we continue to be mainly consumers rather than of producers of knowl edge, we remain dependent. It is true, also, that our countries are making efforts to advance in the development of scientific research capacities -with some success and to some extent, as dis cussed in the first part of this text- in order to increase our scientific production. But, perhaps at least as important for Latin America at this stage of its development, is to learn to orient the pro duction of knowledge and to make it meaningful; to use the knowledge -both the one created within and the imported- and to apply it for the solution of our problems and the benefit of our own people. It is sad, for instance, to see how our countries, once and yet today very rich in natural and cultural resources, do not exploit this wealth for which they have been exploited; how we have learned to extract and sell cheaply these natural resources as raw materials, without car ing to add any value to them,(footnote 2) and, more recently, how we have learned to contribute -modestly- to international science, without however applying it to our national needs or interests. To illus trate this state of affairs, here is a text that refers to prehispanic mining in Mexico:(footnote 3)

"In mesoamerican antiquity, as in all times up to this end of the twentieth century, it is a rule that when a society has a natural resource in more abundance than needed for local consump tion, there is overproduction and consequent exportation; however, almost simultaneously there arises the dominant influence from the consumer of the excess produced, and his influ ence acts in such way that, in the end, the real beneficiary is not the (mining) producer but, paradoxically, the consumer. An unfortunate reality that should make us react and decidedly work for the integration of a strong and growing national market for our primary production, in order to export the excesses but only once transformed, so that they bear an added value that truly brings economic benefits to all, and to the mining producers in the first place."
These various aspects of dependence, rather than relating just to the economy, permeate the whole of our societies; they determine even the objectives that we set for ourselves. They act, in particular, on the educational and scientific systems in a deep and persistent way; our younger generations are still educated for the passive acceptance of the knowledge generated in other places at other times. The price paid for this is a generalized absence of creative, innovative and independent activity; or where there is creative activity, it is not encouraged or taken up in a sys tematic way. The need to break this vicious circle is a big challenge for our educational systems, and for our institutions in general. In the course of this century, in the Far East and Southeast Asia other countries that were in a similar situation have faced this challenge with strong political determination, and have thus been able to find their path for development, based on their own re sources and capabilities; in Latin America there is still much to be done in this respect.

3. What kind of science?

There is indeed at present a wide consensus on the positive role played by science and technology as key agents for economic or social progress. This premise, however, should always be taken with a grain of salt, and particularly so when referred to developing or non-industrialized coun tries: either we invest our own efforts in science and technology and put them to work for the de velopment of our countries and the benefit of their populations, or there is no guarantee that they will play such positive role.

So an urgent requisite for our countries is a strong national investment in S&T, with a clear pic ture of what we want S&T for, which of course varies in details from country to country, depend ing on its needs, resources, potentialities, and national development programme - assuming such programme exists and is stable and well defined. To think, however, that our scientific develop ment should aim at bridging the gap that separates us from the developed countries, is at present a big illusion, and a wrong one indeed. In the last decade, all developing countries taken together invested 3% of the world expenditure in science and technology, whereas the USA alone con tributed over 33%. There are competitions that are lost automatically before the start. We have to find our own way of becoming competitive, by recognizing what our weaknesses are and what our comparative advantages can be, instead of playing always at a disadvantage.

In this regard, it is interesting for instance to observe the relative strength of the biological sci ences in Latin America, in comparison with other disciplines. In most countries of the region, pure and applied biology has been historically at the origin of research activities and is still the most active field, as shown in table 2. In this large field, which includes basic and applied medical research, agricultural and environmental sciences and biotechnology, there are around 1,400 ac tive research centres or units, many of which are devoted to problems related to human health, nutrition and agriculture, making valuable contributions in these areas. Nevertheless, it is recog nized that the present research capacities are largely insufficient to cope with the pressing prob lems posed by infectious diseases, malnutrition, poor agricultural production, overexploitation or misuse of natural resources, etc.

Table 2. Research units by field in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking region of Latin Amer ica,
as registered in the ACAL database (1992).
Taken from the UNESCO World Science Report 1993.


   Field               BIOLOGY       CHEMISTRY    EARTH SCIENCES    MATHEMATICS     PHYSICS        
   Number of units      1 389           289            228             155            219

   Percentage            60.9           12.7           10              6.8            9.6

In the remaining fields listed in the table, much less research is done, and the geographical distri bution of the research centres is also poorer. Most of this research is in the basic disciplines of the natural and exact sciences -both pure and applied-, a large part of it is performed in the universi ties, and only a very minor part is linked to industrial development, in the areas of chemical, me chanical, civil and electronic engineering. In fact, in table 2 technological research is not even made explicit, which in itself is significant; but when figures are given, they usually are very low.
For example, of all the research projects registered by Conacyt in Mexico in the period 1980- 1990, only about 10 % corresponded to the engineering and technology areas;(footnote 4) on the average, the number of patents registered annually by Mexican researchers amounts to only 7% of the total number of patents registered in the country (industrial patents corresponding to 10% of this num ber), and this contribution has diminished in the last decades. Such condition, which is in general very similar in other countries of the region, has a terribly high cost, in terms of technological and industrial dependence, and of course as a direct burden on the national economies. Just to men tion an example, in the telecommunications industry approximately 50% of the production costs result from payment of imported knowhow.

And yet, in trying to adopt more modern styles of living, without however contributing to techno logical progress, our countries are becoming not less, but more technologically dependent. Only very strong, decisive, long-term national efforts can reverse this process: national science-based industries -pharmaceutical, food-processing, electrical, electronic, chemical, etc.- should be pro moted and developed, and at the same time, we should make an effort to adopt living and work ing styles that are more in accord with our own resources and production capacities and depend less on imported goods and knowhow, without this implying an isolation from modern scientific and technological advances. This latter suggestion is, perhaps, more difficult to accept, particu larly from the part of those who take the decisions; but the former needs much more political will and financial resources than what seems to be available in the region at present.

Whatever the specific policies that are adopted in each country, it should be clear that Latin America needs to design and implement her own way of developing, a way that implies a more homogeneous and unified development, on a national and on a regional scale. A way that allows her to respond in a first instance to her own problems and needs, drawing as much as possible from her own resources, with the purpose of gradually achieving a capacity of self-determination. A way that allows her to consolidate her relative strengths and thus cooperate with other regions of the world on an equal footing.

All this cannot be achieved without constructing a strong endogenous scientific system, deeply rooted and linked with the social, educational and cultural systems, and serving as basis for tech nological development and industrial production. Many more science students are needed; but also, many more scientists need to be employed everywhere: in schools and universities, in re search centres, in factories, in hospitals, etc. And as a necessary complement, the scientific cul ture should become much more part of everyday life.

One further aspect that should be mentioned is the generalized absence of the social and human sciences from the discussions on science and from the official statistics as well (see for example table 2), as if no research were done in these branches. It is still very common -as it is to some extent in most of the world- to use the term sciences to refer to the natural and exact sciences plus mathematics, leaving out the rest: anthropology, sociology, history, economics, political sci ence, linguistics, etc. Only recently there is evidence of a change of attitude in this respect; for instance, the members of the National System of Researchers in Mexico have been classified into four groups: Physics and Mathematics, Biology, Medicine and Chemistry, Engineering and Tech nology, and the Social Sciences and Humanities. Still, the latter are tacitly -at times even openly- considered to be `less scientific' and not up to the standards of the `true' sciences. The numbers of specialists and research centres in the social and human sciences are very low throughout Latin America and their work is scarcely known, despite the fact that in some areas there is very valu able work and a noticeable production of literature.

It is clear, though, that the problems posed by development call for a serious and thorough work from social scientists in close collaboration with scientists from other disciplines. In fact, through out the world the need to understand the social and human phenomena is today at least as urgent and pressing as the need to understand the physical world or to develop new technologies -and yet, the instruments to achieve such understanding and to procure a deeper knowledge of all hu man-related phenomena, are hardly being cultivated; one could rightly say that they are underde- veloped.

4. Science for whom, by whom?

An element that is not usually taken into consideration when discussing about science and devel opment, is the possible role of the population at large, not as objects of study or passive receivers of the outcomes of a certain development programme, but as active participants in any pro gramme. This is an aspect that is largely overlooked by our governments, but also by our educa tional and scientific institutions. Democratic life is not yet a tradition in Latin America, and a sign of this is the marginalization of the majority of the population from most activities, especially at the decision-making level. It is still common to see that our fellow citizens are counted -for in stance, for election or taxation purposes-, but they do not count; they may say but they have no say; they may speak but their words are not heard.

One issue deserves special attention in this respect: The ancient civilizations that flourished on the American Continent may have been mostly destroyed, but there is a great wealth of wisdom and knowledge that did not disappear but has been transmitted through generations, has been enriched by the influence of other cultures, has grown and evolved, and is used today by our populations, even though it is not (yet?) systematized and shaped into the canonical schemes of Western sci ence. Such knowledge and wisdom constitute a pillar for the survival of our populations. In many cases there is a core contribution from women to this wealth of accumulated, transmitted, prop erly applied and enriched knowledge. There are innumerable, very valuable examples that serve as testimony of such `unconventional' knowledge, in the areas of (truly) sustainable agriculture, health care, food processing, use of natural resources, ..., precisely in areas where some of the most pressing problems of today have been identified. Such assets, if appropriately taken into consideration and linked to our scientific systems, could result in important comparative advan tages.

However, in our hurried attempt to become `modern' these assets are being thrown into oblivion. Ironically, in some cases their value is more readily recognized by scientists from the industrialized world, or even by foreign enterprises that `privatize' this common knowledge for their advan- tage.(footnote 5) Not only do we thus miss the opportunity to contribute with different and genuine solutions to our own problems and to those of the rest of the world; in addition we bear witness to the gradual, irrepairable loss of popular knowledge systems as well as of the ecosystems sustained by them, and to the growing separation between science and the population.

This view is contrary to the conventional one among our scientific communities, who largely con sider international science as a highly successful endeavour, on account of its indeed impressive successes -disregarding what science has not achieved or has failed to do, and even ignoring the serious global risks and concrete damages produced by uncontrolled uses and developments of science and technology-. It is interesting to note that in general, other expressions of culture, such as the visual arts, the literature, the music, are less exclusive and more open to a plural participa tion from outsiders of the established system. One wonders whether the exclusiveness of science -in its objectives, its methodologies, its objects of study, its originators and participants, its insti tutions- is a requisite and a guarantee for `good science'. Does the scientific activity necessarily pertain to an intellectual elite? Is the present scheme of science as produced predominantly in the industrialized countries the only possible, the only legitimate one? Is this scheme defined once and for ever? Nobody has been able to demonstrate that this is the unique way for knowledge to con tribute to the development of humankind; in fact, very little is known about how knowledge in its various forms can and does contribute to development.(footnote 6)

It seems, though, as if in our fear of being left out from a system in which we are not really in, and of missing the last and only chance of jumping into modernity, we cannot dare to ask ourselves such questions. It seems as if the act of investigating our own reality, unveiling its mysteries and mastering its complexities, would prevent us from being universal; whereas, on the contrary, the `global' modern civilization should be viewed as the integrated result of the contributions of all peoples and cultures, each one providing their part to the best of their capacities.

Matters as these should ideally be discussed with the concerted participation of well-informed members of the various relevant sectors, including the national institutions, the organized popula tion, and the scientific community. Such discussions, when carried out in an atmosphere of open ness, intelligence, creativity, deeper mutual understanding, responsibility and respect for the differences, should be particularly useful in providing us with elements for alternative patterns of knowledge-based and people-based development, which is, in my view, the necessary way of working towards sustainable development.