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Women on the challenges of being a scientist in Latin America and the Caribbean
Regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s not easy being a scientist in Latin America or the Caribbean (LAC).  Like anywhere else in the world, from the time one starts university it takes ten years of research and hard work just to earn a PhD in LAC, followed by several years working in postdoctoral fellowship positions. In academia in particular, scientists don’t typically qualify for tenured teaching positions until they’re in their mid-30s.  

Add to that the fact that Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries invest, on average, just 0.6 percent of their GDP in research and development (R&D), according to the 2005 Science Report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The richest nations devote between 2-3 percent of their GDP to R&D, by comparison.

Thus, it’s not surprising that while Latin America and the Caribbean represent 8.6 percent of the world population, just 2.5 percent of the world’s scientists come from that region. What may be somewhat surprising is that according to 2003 figures from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS), 46 percent of researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean are women, far exceeding the world average of 27 percent.[1]

But looking at such numbers can be deceptive, indicates Gloria Bonder, UNESCO Regional Chair of Women, Science and Technology in Latin America. Bonder wrote in a paper presented at the 9th International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women in Seoul, Korea, that most women scientists in Latin America tend to be involved in research and teaching at universities and research centers, whereas a greater percentage of males choose the private sector where they can earn higher salaries. The result is that women scientists in the region earn, on average, 30 percent less than men with similar qualifications.

Nevertheless, Bonder indicates that the compensation that scientists living in LAC earn, whether male and female, is significantly devalued, compared to other regions. “This phenomenon, together with poor investment in S&T by the State, may be directly tied to the feminization of the scientific profession,” Bonder concludes.

Argentina physicist Mariana Weissmann, a senior researcher at the Atomic Energy Commission in Buenos Aires, the first woman to be elected to Argentina’s National Academy of Exact Sciences and the 2003 Latin American winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO award for Women in Science - the world’s most prestigious prize for women scientists- suggests another reason to account for the relatively high percentage of women in science in the region. “The good male students are quickly co-opted by companies in countries with lots of money, so they tend to leave. But the women remain at home; that’s why so many university professors in Latin America are female.”

Dora Altbir, Research Director of the University of Santiago in Chile, thinks that companies abroad prefer male scientists to women because they believe women become less productive once they marry and have children.

Altbir says nothing could be further from the truth. “Many people think that when the kids are born, women will spend less time at work and that may be true, but the time spent working is much more productive. I can speak from personal experience that the most productive part of my career started when my children were born; that’s when my professional maturity was reached. I know of many examples where women became much more productive after their children were born.” 


Where are the scientists?

Regardless of gender, Weissman says that one main deterrent to improving the state of science in LAC is the education gap between the rich and the poor in the region. “People who are poor don’t reach universities at all, so that’s one reason why the scientific community in Latin America is very, very small. The enormously unequal distribution of wealth makes conducting scientific studies very difficult, because you can’t have a large research group, which you need to do studies properly.”

Altbir agrees that the lack of scientists in the region is a deterent to scientific progress. “In Chile, there aren’t more than 150 or 200 physicists in the entire country. Can 200 people work on real problems, while also writing proposals, teaching classes, doing research and producing PhDs? First, we need to increase interest and convince students that it’s important and fun to do science.  Right now, I think the main role of science is to educate people.”

According to UNESCO’s 2005 report, Chile is home to just 6,105 researchers in all science and technology fields, combined, including natural and exact science, engineering and technology, medical and agricultural sciences.

While Brazil and Argentina fare better than the rest of the region, with 77,822 and 35,015 researchers, respectively, even they don’t come close to comparing with industrialized nations. While the Germany, the US and Japan have, respectively, 3209, 4374 and 5085 researchers per million population, Brazil and Argentina have just 315 and 715, according to UNESCO.

Well aware of the need to strengthen the region’s capacity in science and technology, the IDB has a long tradition of supporting the development of both that sector and a closely related one—education. The Bank has allocated more than $1.8 billion and $5.4 billion, respectively, to financing S&T and education projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, as of November 2006. 

The science-industry disconnect

Belita Koiller, a Physics Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Senior Research Fellow of the Brazilian National Research Council since 1985, the first woman physicist to be elected as a full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the winner of the 2005 L’Oreal-UNESCO award for Women in Science in Latin America agrees with Weissman and Altbir that there are more pressing challenges in the field of science than gender inequalities. She lists finding ways to increase funding for infrastructure and research and getting industry more interested in R&D as among her top concerns. 

“Research is mainly funded by the government in Brazil,” Koiller says. “There are very few cases where Brazilian companies have their own labs. Research money from Brazilian funding agencies is distributed through the submission of proposals by researchers and peer review; the system is well established and works very well.” 

Koiller notes, however, that(*) IDB funding is not directly accessible to active scientists. “Probably someone in the government bureaucracy decides how to use those fund; the process has lots of problems and moves very slowly,” she says. 

Weissman agrees that industry does not have much of a presence in science. “The government finances science [in Argentina], not industry,” she says, adding that economic decisions are completely divorced from science in her country. “It’s a problem of greed; for example, many landowners in Argentina have decided that they can make money by planting soy seeds, so most of their land is occupied by plantations. They don’t ask if this will be good for the land 50 or 100 years from now. They don’t use scientific information [to make decisions].”

Koiller thinks that industry in Brazil and the rest of Latin America could fall behind the rest of the world unless it becomes a more active partner in R&D. “Innovation is a big key to any product,” she says. “We need to be ahead of the curve instead of following it.”

Koiller cites ethanol production and oil and deepwater drilling technology as among Brazil’s technological successes, “but these all started as government projects. Every example I know of started at the university [with government funding], and then companies teamed up later. Maybe this is an area where [IDB] loans could be given, so companies can fund their own internal research facilities; that would promote development.”

Though very appreciative of the IDB’s funding for science and technology, Koiller urges the Bank to finance programs such as the Millennium Institutes Program, which involves national competitions, evaluated by an international jury. She also encourages the Bank to step up its support for international scientific conferences, saying that few are held in the countries of the region currently and those that do take place in the region are sparsely attended by Latin American scientist, thanks to steep registration fees. 

Equally important, says Koiller, is the need to fund research infrastructure in public schools and universities, such as buildings, laboratories and the like. “These are some of the areas where the IDB can have a real impact,” she concludes. 

[1] Note that while regional averages show high participation of women in the sciences, realities differ in individual countries. In Chile, for example, just 33 percent of research scientists are women, according to UIS.