LIMA, Peru — Since Spanish cutthroats first arrived in Latin America desperate to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado, the region’s development has revolved around its natural resources.
Export booms — often followed by dramatic busts — in raw commodities including gold, silver, guano, rubber, wool, beef, hardwoods, and now oil and gas have left their mark across the region.
But some governments here are waking up to the fact that a model whose foundations were laid in the 16th century is holding back growth in the era of the knowledge economy.
In particular, they are starting to focus taxpayers’ money on reversing Latin America’s traditionally huge deficit in the STEMs — science, technology, engineering and math.
On average, Latin American countries spend just 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product on research and development, according to figures provided to GlobalPost by ECLAC, the United Nations’ agency for economic development in the region.
That compares to 2.8 percent in the United States, 4.3 percent in Israel and 3.7 percent in Korea, three countries usually seen as science and technology role models.
And the average for the OECD group of leading industrial nations is 2.4 percent.
“There has been a lack of awareness of the importance of scientific and technological research and innovation in Latin America, especially in the private sector,” Sebastian Rovira, an ECLAC economist, said. “That is not sustainable development.”
According to Rovira, Latin American countries need to diversify their economies, seek high-wage jobs, and build up their manufacturing sectors.
All of that will prove impossible without a steady and growing supply of STEM graduates.
Peter DeShazo, head of LASPAU, a Harvard-based nonprofit that promotes access to quality higher education for Latin Americans, added: “It can even add more value in the commodity chain.”
“In order to successfully export, you need a lot of investment in infrastructure, ports, bridges, and roads. All of that requires a high level of human resources, high-quality engineering, planners, IT experts and so on.”
More from GlobalPost: Latin America’s internet paradox
But things are starting to change.
Brazil, which studies show is already making an increasing global impact through academic papers and patent filings, is leading the way. Unveiled in 2011, its $20 billion Science Without Borders program, administered in the US by LASPAU, aims to dish out 75,000 science and technology scholarships for Brazilians to study in top universities, mainly in the US, including Harvard and MIT, by 2014.
Of those, more than 34,000 will go to doctoral students. Meanwhile, the government of President Dilma Rousseff will also be seeking ways to encourage the private sector to fund another 25,000 scholarships.
As Brazil prepares for the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, it has a pressing need for more engineers and computer scientists as well as chemists and physicists.
Several of the South American giant’s smaller neighbors are also doing their best to follow in Brazil’s footsteps.
Ecuador has launched its Prometeo program aimed at strengthening the research teams at its traditionally weak public universities.
The program will both provide support for young Ecuadoreans to study STEM subjects and attempt to attract foreign scientists, computer experts, mathematicians and engineers.
With monthly salaries ranging from $4,300 to $5,900, Spain’s El Pais newspaper reports, Prometeo has particularly targeted Spaniards, with whom Ecuador shares a common language and whose economic crisis has thrown millions out of work.
Yet the gulf Latin America will have to bridge was made plain in a recent interview with Carlos Jarque, manager of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Sustainable Development Department.
According to him, Dutch and Swedish scientists together publish more research papers than all the scientists in Latin America and the Caribbean put together.
And while the US has roughly 1 million people working on research and development, Latin America has a grand total of just 30,000.
But perhaps the most telling data has to do with quality. Recent OECD research, Jarque said, shows the highest-scoring 10 percent of science and tech students in Latin America and the Caribbean would be among the lowest 25 percent in Korea.
The solution will require a series of measures. DeShazo, a former US ambassador to several Latin American countries, said public middle and high schools must improve as well.
Meanwhile, Rovira said the private sector must be encouraged to do more for Latin America to emulate advanced economies, where most science and technology funding comes from business.
It will require “state policies not government policies,” Rovira added — in other words, long-term planning that goes beyond the terms of individual governments.
That will include providing opportunities for the new generation of STEM whizzes.
“For most research scientists, you probably have to leave Peru, at least for a long period of time, if not your entire career,” Mariana Leguia, a Peruvian molecular cell biologist with a PhD from Rhode Island’s Brown University, told GlobalPost.
She returned to her homeland in 2011 after 20 years in the United States, including several doing post-doctoral research at University of California, Berkeley. After speaking with universities, government ministries and private companies here, she actually ended up doing research on tropical diseases for the US Navy in Lima.
Now, as Latin America starts to ramp up the number of STEM graduates and postgraduates, its biggest challenge may be in generating jobs for them — the jobs that will allow the region to once and for all end its addiction to volatile commodity exports.