Latin America to Strengthen Industrial Research as Spur for Region's Economic Growth

Article excerpt

The environment in Latin America today for relating technical change to economic growth is vastly different from the environment of ten, or even five, years ago. In keeping with the moves toward democratic institutions and market economies that characterize most of the countries in Lath America, there is a genuine desire on the part of individuals, institutions and governments of the region to generate economic growth based on science and technology. This was evident at the Hemispheric Conference on Industrial Research for Technological Innovation, which I attended in April in Vina del Mar, Chile.

The problem with implementing this desire for growth is that government actions and policies intended to influence the conduct of R&D have followed traditional patterns of supporting basic research in universities and R&D in publicly funded research institutes, without effectively coupling those problems to the economic system. This pattern is certainly not unique to Latin America and, in fact, describes government science and technology policy in most developed countries, including the United States. However, the developed counties, particularly the U.S., have a strong base of industrial research -- the R & D conducted within private firms -- whereas Latin America has only a modest industrial research base, although one that is growing steadily. (I use "Latin America" here as a shorthand for "Latin America and the Caribbean countries.")

The Organization of American States (OAS) has initiated one major effort to link science and the economy. Called MERCOCYT, the Spanish acronym for "Common Market of Scientific and Technological Knowledge," it encourages cooperation between universities and industry. These interactions are valuable both in stimulate interest at universities in the technical problems of industry and in providing needed assistance to industry. However, such activity includes more problem-solving and technical services than would be found in similar U.S. programs, such as the NSF University-Industry Centers. These university short-term activities are necessary and valuable for the relatively smaller industrial research organizations that now exist in Latin America. Nevertheless, the MERCOCYT program is developing linkages that can provide the foundation for broader and more sophisticated research programs in the future.

I have been cooperating with the OAS Department of Scientific and Technological Affairs, and particularly with the MERCOCYT program, to consider actions that could encourage the growth of industrial research in Latin America. It seems clear that a stronger base of industrial research will accelerate economic growth from the science and technology resource of the region, and it will act to raise the level of research activity at universities and other research institutions that interact with industry.

Multinationals in Attendance

The Hemispheric Conference was an important step in this direction. Hosted by the Chilean government, it was sponsored by the OAS and the Bolivar Program, which encourages entrepreneurship and joint ventures to accelerate industrial growth. The 60-70 attendees were from Latin American companies, research institutions, and 10-12 multinational corporations including IBM, DuPont, Philips, Gillette, Pfizer, and Hoffmann-LaRoche. They were advised on government and academic policies by a small group of specialists from government ministries and universities. The emphasis was on identifying barriers to expanding industrial R&D and exploring mechanisms to encourage its growth.

The immediate value of the conference was that it focused the attention of all sectors in Latin America on the desirability of strengthening industrial research within the region. Importantly, it provided for an informal dialogue between government and industry that brought out the willingness of all parties to develop constructive ways to cooperate in the effective conduct of industrial research. …