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Argentina is trying to build a scientific establishment
Nov 5th 2011 | BUENOS AIRES | from the print edition
SOUTH AFRICA is not the only middle-income country which aspires to join the world’s scientific powers (see article). Argentina would like to as well. The place is proud of its three Nobel science prizes—the largest haul of any Latin American nation—even if the most recent was awarded in 1984. But many researchers fled in the 1990s, when budgets were slashed. Now the government is trying to attract them back, and to encourage younger talent to consider a scientific career.
When Néstor Kirchner, the predecessor and late husband of the current president, Cristina Fernández, took office in 2003, Argentina was spending just 0.41% of its GDP on research and development (R&D). Now, that figure is 0.64%. (Brazil, by comparison, spent 0.95% in 2003 and 1.18% in 2009.) Kirchner raised researchers’ salaries, launched a scheme to repatriate departed scientists and gave tax breaks to software companies. Ms Fernández followed suit by creating a science ministry and putting a biologist, Lino Barañao, in charge of it. She also increased grants to firms that try to develop new products.
Many of the Kirchners’ critics were sceptical, seeing the ministry either as a political marketing ploy or as a soft touch for lobbyists seeking unjustified subsidies. But the strategy seems to be working. With help from the Inter-American Development Bank the government has, since 2004, lured back 854 expatriate scientists. It has done so by providing new laboratories and equipment for them, moving their families, and forking out extra money for their salaries. As a consequence, according to Dr Barañao, Argentine researchers have published 179 articles in leading journals in the past decade, compared with just 30 in the 1990s.
Most of the returners are academics. But commercial science has benefited, too. Indear, a joint public-private biotechnology-research centre based in Santa Fe, recently worked out how to transfer a gene for drought resistance from sunflowers to crops such as maize, soyabeans and wheat. That can increase yields in droughts by up to 40%. And the government has also doled out $54m in grants for the development of products that include coagulant factors to treat haemophilia, transgenic cattle which secrete valuable hormones in their milk, and better ways of probing for oil deposits.
Help for high-tech innovation comes in other forms, too. The state offers, for example, to pay the cost of patenting inventions in foreign jurisdictions and of hiring lawyers to defend those patents. It also acts as a headhunter for information-technology firms seeking employees with PhDs, and will pay part of the salaries of such recruits. None of these programmes has faced allegations of corruption.
Whether all this activity will have the effect of stimulating high-tech industry, as Ms Fernández hopes, remains to be seen. Argentine scientists are happy to take taxpayers’ money but according to Luis Dambra, a professor at the IAE business school in Buenos Aires, they look down their noses at the idea of actually getting their hands dirty by going into industry. Mr Dambra, though, says industry is equally to blame. In 2009 (the latest year for which data are available), only 21% of Argentine R&D was paid for by the private sector, compared with 44% of Brazil’s. Firms that might recruit academic scientists often do not see the point. Even those that do may struggle to accommodate people with a non-commercial background into the business world.
Attitudes can change, of course. In the 1980s many British academics were as snobbish about commerce as Argentina’s are now. These days, Britain’s top universities are gung-ho for spin-outs and the revenue they can provide. But it takes time and consistent policy to make such changes and Argentina is notorious for sudden alterations in the political weather. That makes the country a perilous place to invest, whatever the current climate.