Samba, Tango, Mariachi, and Science: The Rhythm of Latin American Biomedical Science

latin american scienceMuch of the progress and development of science has been discussed from the perspective of the United States, Europe, Japan, and emergent countries such as China and India, which are undoubtedly the major powers in science. However, it is important to also look at countries that have been increasing investment in science and are not the top 10 powerhouses. Latin America is a good example of progress in research and development (R&D) over a short period of time. Not perfect at all, but promising.


Countries like Brazil and Mexico are the regional leaders in Latin American science. Brazil has the 15th position in worldwide publications (Mexico is 28th) from 1996-2013. South America itself represents 4% of world publications. For a region that concentrates 8.5% of the world population, the results could be seen as limited, but Latin American R&D spending increased significantly in the last decade—a 10-fold increase in Brazil, which spends 1.2% of its GDP in R&D, with investment mostly from the government. To put this in perspective, the United States spends close to 3% of its GDP in R&D.


How does the biomedical enterprise work in Latin America? It varies from country to country, but some general concepts are common among all. Governments are the big funding agencies, with their Ministries of Science, Education, and Health distributing the funding to academic institutions, which is where most biomedical science is produced. Patent numbers are low, as well as investment by industry and private sectors. In stark contrast to the U.S., most grad students and postdocs have government fellowships to pay their stipends. Research money usually cannot be used to pay personnel. Governments have fellowships for undergrads, grad students, and postdocs. However, as seen in the U.S. and the rest of the world, stipends are low. A PhD student earns on average around $700 USD/month in Mexico and Brazil. For postdocs, fellowships have variable stipends ($900 USD/month in Argentina, $2,000 in Chile, $1,500 in Brazil), which can depend upon postdoc experience and the presence of extra research funds. Cost of living can be a big variable here, but the salaries are quite behind the average salaries of highly educated personnel in each country. To illustrate, average rents for 1-bedroom apartments in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Mexico City are $788, $631, and $498 USD, respectively. The good news—most fellowships are tax-exempt. However, government instabilities and bureaucracies can hurt the scientific enterprise: Delays in fellowship payment are not uncommon in Latin America. Recently in Brazil, payments for grad students and postdocs were delayed for months, leading to digital protests and significant media coverage.


Infrastructure is still critical for the progress of Latin America’s scientific enterprise. In recent years, modern and expensive equipment has been ordered by Latin American institutions, but installed in dilapidated buildings with outdated structures. There is a clear trend toward modernization, since funding is increasing, but it is common to see lab space being a limiting factor in universities. One of the most stated problems among scientists relates to buying reagents from abroad. Because of the governmental bureaucracy, a simple antibody order can take 2-3 months to be delivered due to customs. Situations like this significantly slow down scientific achievements.


On the bright side, some Latin American countries have created fellowship programs for grad students and postdocs to study abroad, through which travel, stipend, and health insurance are all covered. Some programs facilitate repatriation of young talents working abroad, in order to make national science strong. Also some state and federal fellowships provide a small stipend to postdocs and grad students for their own research project, to be used for buying reagents, funding conference travel, etc. The significant amount of money invested in science & technology (S&T) nowadays permits PIs to have their desired number of students and postdocs in their labs. Competition for faculty positions is not as intense as in the U.S., and faculty positions are much more stable, since the oppressive system of U.S.-style tenure-track is absent. That means: once you are hired, you are tenured and lack of research funding is not a reason for losing a job. This gives PIs the opportunity and the stability to apply for other grants, in case they lose one. Importantly, research funding is growing in Latin America, as are collaborations with international institutions and publications.


Pros and Cons: the Future of Latin America’s Scientific Enterprise

The future of Latin America looks positive for S&T endeavors. The increase in funding and international collaborations brings a breath of fresh air and a chance for changes in old habits, pressuring government in favor of more R&D funding and infrastructure. Scientists are publishing more in indexed, international journals, bringing their knowledge to the world community. They are doing their part. But they can do even better: It is critical to ensure proper infrastructure in universities and research centers to host high-level labs; to create facilities for expensive multi-user equipment (with staff scientists hired to take care of it); and to make import of reagents easier. In the long run, Latin America needs to think about the job market for PhD-holders, including postdocs. Creation of research scientist-type jobs for people who don’t want to be a PI is a necessity to absorb a potential excess of highly educated personnel. Finally, the private sector should receive incentives from the government to invest in S&T. Policies to open their countries to international fellows will also fortify collaborations and scientific production to make Latin America a more serious player in the scientific world.


About the Author:

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is a Senior Staff Scientist in the Department of Biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Bruno studies the spatiotemporal dynamics of endothelial cell receptors using single molecule imaging. He was one of the founding members of COMPASS, and co-chair during 2015-2016. Bruno was the founder and co-chair of the Task Force on LGBTQ+ Diversity and currently is a member. Bruno also volunteered on the ASCB 5-year strategic plan, helping on creating the guidelines for further democratizing the society by ensuring leadership and decision making reflect the broad range of the membership and their interests and priorities E-mail: Twitter: @brunodra

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