Turning the ship around

The Times Higher Education has published an article by Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela, the ship in this case being higher education institutions in Latin America. My comment:

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Writing from another Centre of Advanced Research in Mexico City, I share with Carolina the preoccupation of how to strengthen science in Latin America societies – without for a moment suggesting that the mission is accomplished elsewhere in the world. Dr Guzmán-Valenzuela is of course correct to start by pointing out the low investment in research and development in the region: after all as much as we would like Universities to be protected from political interference, they never operate outside of the ‘polis’; one should also examine in this part of the world decision-making over resource-allocations. Change in attitudes on this problem has been the subject in books written by my departmental colleague Marcelino Cereijido. I also agree that investment in public institutions is preferred over the private way of moving ahead.

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However, the usefulness of consulting university rankings or the proposal to focus on venues for publication of the research conducted is a matter of deep concern. Take for instance the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Not a single important decision can be taken in an informed way in Mexico, without the input of its best functioning public institution, which in addition educates a sizeable part of the country’s youth. The UNAM has numerous institutes conducting high-level research and is self-driven by its mission and the reliance of other sectors in Mexico on its judgment (the main legitimate external force along with the welcome criticisms of experts around the World). Comparing the UNAM’s lower ranking to a UK institution I know from within, I would raise eyebrows if only I could control my incredulity…

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Likewise, passing judgment solely by focusing on publication venues should be looked at with caution. Not only because there is a language barrier (after English was established as the major language for scientists). Also, because there are very few, if any, prestigious publishers that do not make use of their privilege to serve special interests, partnerships with industry, government, the scientific establishment in major countries (none from Latin America). Thus, despite the many positive inferences when work done in Latin America is accepted following stringent international peer-review, the major criteria to judge scientific accomplishment needs to remain its understanding, scrutiny, testing, teaching etc. What I have seen here is much superior execution of these attributes; in the UK all this was left to outsiders to judge (journals, funders etc.) with minimal engagement within the institution. We are much closer to the Max-Planck Institute in Göttingen or the intramural programs of the NIH in Maryland.

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One might ask then, where are the marked achievements / contributions to knowledge coming out of Latin America? The answer is beyond the scope of this comment, but I wish to close with a final argument. Brasil benefited for a few years from a public investment in science and the results were spectacular for anyone who followed how science was invigorated and lives were changed. However, the new politics in that huge and diverse country have already reversed the situation. Interestingly, the concerted attack started first against their national petrol industry. In Mexico, the same has just occurred – PEMEX has been opened up to its competitors from wealthier economies – here the Government was complacent (some talk about treason). The argument is that science requires technology; technology can be generated or bought; as long as Latin America can be convinced to be a buyer and not a producer of technology, its higher education sector will remain inferior to the one of the selling countries.

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