Scientists Seek Free Trade Agreement for `Eggheads' Group Wants Computer Networks to Share Information across Borders

Article excerpt

PAST a new electron microscope, a spectrophotometer, and sundry laboratory equipment, you will find Antonio Pena Diaz squeezed into an office not much bigger than a closet.

One of Mexico's leading microbiologists and past president of the Mexican Academy of Scientific Research (he stepped down in February), Dr. Pena is catching up on some electronic mail from a doctoral student in the United States. And he's brainstorming about what might be dubbed a "hemispheric free-trade agreement for eggheads."

Scientists figure that if the industrialists in gray suits can pull off a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so can the lab boys in the white coats.

"We're in a period where the economic borders are disappearing. Why not the scientific borders?" asks Pena, director of the Institute of Cellular Physiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"Instead of duplicating efforts, we should be cooperating across borders and getting better use of limited resources. The idea is to foster an environment for collaboration throughout the hemisphere," he says.

Pena is co-chairman of a group of scientists from 11 nations advocating what's known as the Western Hemisphere Science Collaboration Initiative.

The initiative calls for creating better communication and cooperation by setting up computer networks to exchange information. It wants to encourage governments and international institutions to provide scholarship money and fund collaborative research efforts that draw on the expertise of several nations. The long-term goal is to set up a Pan American Research Foundation.

This is not a scheme by underfunded Latin American scientists to grab funds and ideas from supposedly "rich" northern neighbors, Pena says. US and Canadian scientists are also advocates of the initiative. And Organization of American States and United Nations representatives are on the steering committee.

"In many Latin American nations, there are world-class scientists in specific fields. Of course, you won't find excellence in every discipline, in every country," says Francisco Ayala, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a genetics researcher at the University of California, Irvine.

There are also sound economic reasons for the initiative. Dr. Ayala says there's a tendency for Latin American graduate students to automatically go to the US or Canada, without realizing a top scientist and program exist in a neighboring country. "It's easier and cheaper for a student to go from Bogata to Caracas than to the US," he says.

The subject of the group's first collaborative effort will be biodiversity. A hemispherewide conference is planned for late June in Manaus, Brazil. Pena says he'd rather be focusing on basic science. But other topics are more easily funded. "Biodiversity is a topic with a lot of activity now in various countries," Ayala says. …