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
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
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,
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