Low Scores for Technological Development
By Mario Osava*
Latin America's development looks gloomy if countries fail to increase investment in science and technology, an area where the region spends an average of just 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
RIO DE JANEIRO - Captopril is a hypertension medication that brings in billions of dollars a year for the pharmaceutical industry. Bristol-Myers Squibb holds the patent, but it was Brazilian doctor Mauricio Rocha e Silva who in 1948 isolated its basic ingredient, bradicinine, from the venom of the Bothrops jararaca snake.
Researchers at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) discovered that the saliva of the vampire bat is a better blood-coagulating agent than those existing on the market at the time.
The Germany-based Schering corporation supported the research, but then claimed ownership of the discovery and sold the patent to Japanese firms, without paying a thing to UNAM.
Among the region's researchers ''there is a lack of a culture of intellectual property protection, of registering patents,'' Carlos Vogt, head of Sao Paulo state's research foundation, a leading Brazilian science and technology funder, told Tierramérica.
It is essential to overcome this ''cultural blockage'', which is manifest even when products are developed for the market, says Eugenius Kaszkurewicz, an advisor to Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology.
Alberto Santos Dumont, who Brazil considers the inventor of the airplane, did not patent his discoveries, unlike his rivals in the United States, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
But the limited number of innovations and inventions recognized as Latin American is due largely to deficiencies in other areas.
The figures are discouraging and seem to indicate a gloomy future for the region: scant investment, a shortage of scientists that has been aggravated by ''brain drain'', ridiculously low numbers of national patents and lack of protection for local technologies.
Latin America's lagging behind could have dramatic consequences because knowledge is a crucial form of capital in the ''new economy'', agree experts.
The region dedicates just 0.5 percent of its combined gross domestic product (GDP) to research and development (R&D), compared to 2.5 to 3.0 percent in South Korea, Japan and the United States, a gap that is reflected in productivity, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The Santiago-based United Nations regional agency adds that bridging this gap will require public policies that foment the countries' innovative capacities.
Latin American investment in this area comes mostly from the public sector, while in industrialized countries, private companies are the main source of financing.
In Chile, the state provides 64 percent of total investment in R&D, 20 percent comes from the country's private sector and 15 percent from foreign investment, according to the Chilean National Commission on Scientific and Technological Research.
The financial difficulties of the countries themselves often make the situation worse.
Mexico aims to reach one percent GDP for R&D, an increase from its current 0.43 percent. In Venezuela, investment in R&D in the past two years was 0.14 percent GDP. Brazil, which earmarked 1.0 percent of GDP for R&D in 2000, hopes to double that figure by 2006.
Last year, 24,753 patent applications were filed in Brazil, double the number in 1990, and 40 percent of the requests were from Brazilian residents. In Mexico, there were 12,207 patent requests, but only 468 were from Mexicans.
The major obstacle to greater technological development in the region is ''the economic model based on cheap labor and the export of raw materials, in contrast to the Asian model, characterized by active absorption of technology,'' says Gustavo Biniegra-González, professor at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM).
If it continues along its same path, Latin America ''has no future,'' he said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
The Mexican government ''doesn't know what to do... because the emergence of China and other Asian countries as assembly plants with cheap labor and an ability to assimilate advanced technology'' has surpassed Mexico's capacity to compete in that area, he said.
Biniegra-González predicts a ''disaster of unimaginable proportions'' for Mexico if it doesn't increase investment in science and technology, because importing it is currently costing the country ''more than three, perhaps as much as five percent'' of GDP.
Mexico has no strategy to overcome dependence on petroleum, which could run out, he says, within 20 years, nor is there a strategy for the employment of 20 million small farmers ''who will be made obsolete due to massive imports of corn from the United States.''
Paying pensions for an aging population requires economic growth of at least seven percent a year, he adds.
Cuba has an educational level similar to that of industrialized countries. There are 559 people working in R&D for every 100,000 inhabitants of the island, more than triple the proportion in Brazil and 2.5 times that of Mexico.
''But the existence of knowledge in itself doesn't in any way guarantee results,'' warned a Cuban economist who requested anonymity.
Many obstacles prevent ''the conversion of knowledge into wealth for society,'' such as an insufficient articulation between R&D and the productive sector, a scarcity of capital for research, lack of intellectual property protections and the absence of an integral strategy, said the source.
Human resources for R&D are lagging behind in other countries. ''In Venezuela we have 5,688 researchers, but even so we have a deficit of 12,000,'' according to Ruben Reinoso, training director for the Ministry of Science and Technology.
In Mexico there is just one R&D scientist per 10,000 people, in contrast to Germany, where there are 20 per 10,000, and the United States, 42 per 10,000, according to official figures.
Of the 100,000 Mexicans who received scholarships to study and carry out R&D in other countries in the past 30 years, six percent remained abroad. A third of the 1,500 Chilean scientists dedicated to R&D in 2000 were living in other countries.
But in the Brazilian case, Vogt and Kaszkurewicz point to at least ''three success stories'': agri-business fomented by R&D coming out of the state-run EMBRAPA, an agricultural research agency; the internationally competitive aircraft manufactured by EMBRAER; and the technology for deep sea extraction of petroleum developed by the government's oil company Petrobrás.
Furthermore, major investment in software development allowed Brazil to achieve a level similar to India and China in that area, but, unlike India, it is focused on the domestic market, said Vogt.
Both experts see ''good prospects'' for the future, since the bases of a broad governmental strategy were established, including funds for technological development in 14 areas, a new law to protect inventions, and an industrial policy to stimulate private-sector investment in technology.
Brazil's ''brain drain'' is less than in other developing countries, but could become a problem if the greater number of scientists graduating from university is not accompanied by an expansion of jobs in that sector.
The state-run universities, which employ most of the researchers, will have to obtain greater autonomy and organize themselves in order to create more innovative technologies, while private companies ''must be bold enough to boost their investment in R&D,'' Vogt said.
Currently, the private sector employs just 11 percent of Brazil's scientists, and the distance separating it from the universities has limited the country's technological development and the number of patents registered, he added.
* * Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Diego Cevallos and Pilar Franco (Mexico), Gustavo González (Chile), Patricia Grogg (Cuba) and Humberto Márquez (Venezuela).