Nature Index | Published:

Middle & South America

Nature volume 515, pages S91S92 (13 November 2014) | Download Citation

Scientists in Middle and South America are striving for excellence and reaching out for international collaborations, while contending with comparatively low spending levels.  Article count (AC): 1,968 Fractional count (FC): 804 Weighted fractional count (WFC): 530

Given that more than 92% of the total science and technology investment in Middle and South America goes to Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, it is no surprise that these three countries usually top the regional science output rankings and figure more prominently in the Nature Index than their neighbours. Researchers from this region contributed to 1,968 papers in Nature Index journals in 2013, with a total weighted fractional count (WFC) of 530 — more than three-quarters of which came from these three.

Despite steady growth in the number of peer-reviewed papers published by regional scientists over the past decade, Middle and South America is still far from being a major global player, says Rodolfo Barrere, an Argentinian science metrics specialist who coordinates Ricyt, a survey network compiling data on science policy across all Latin American countries. “The combined effort of all Latin-American countries in the global expenditure in science and technology is between 2% and 3%”, he notes.

Overall, the region's WFC in Nature Index journals leans towards the physical sciences, boosted by observatories based in Chile, arguably the best country in the world for astronomy.

Argentina has a traditional focus on physical sciences, whereas in Brazil, the discipline absorbs more attention than it would otherwise because the bureaucracy surrounding life sciences makes it hard to conduct medical research.

At first glance there appears little to distinguish between the three top countries in the region: Brazil's WFC of 223 places it 23rd globally, Argentina's 105 puts it at 31st place, and Mexico's 77 takes the 34th slot (see top 100 table, page S98). All three countries fit the general profile of an emerging nation with aspirations of becoming a big league player in science. Yet there are notable differences in terms of how each funds scientific endeavours, and the frequency with which their scientists are published in high-profile journals such as those considered by the Nature Index.

Brazil, where 70% of Latin-American science and technology investments are concentrated, is the only country in the region where more than 1% of GDP is invested in research and development (R&D). The most recent data compiled by Ricyt, from 2011, showed the country allocating 1.20% of GDP to R&D, followed by Argentina (0.65%), Mexico (0.45%) and Chile (0.44%).

Brazil striving to stimulate excellence

In Brazil, the University of São Paulo (USP) outstrips other institutions by some margin for article numbers in the Nature Index. It is a huge institution, employing around 6,000 faculty and has around 100,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

USP receives precisely 5.5% of the total commercial tax revenue, (US$2.2 billion or R$5 billion) which is the main tributary tool (90%) in São Paulo state. And its researchers are typically awarded half of the US$500 million in grants offered by Fapesp (São Paulo's science funding agency).

The steady flow of cash in Brazil guarantees resources for scientists, but does not create the most conducive environment to stimulate excellence of quality, according to Jose Eduardo Krieger, deputy dean for research at USP, who compared the system unfavourably to that in the US.

“In Brazil, a scholar who fails to obtain grants still has his wage guaranteed.”

“In the US funding model, the quality assessment of research is embedded in the system,” says Krieger. While a United States researcher's income is closely tied to competitive funding, he says, in Brazil, a scholar who fails to obtain grants still has his wage guaranteed.

Within the index, Brazil also has a relatively low rate of international collaboration compared with other Latin-American countries: 2.2 compared to 2.7 for Mexico and 4.3 for Chile.

In order to promote collaboration, the federal government established Science without Borders, a programme under which young academics, mostly undergraduates, go abroad to study.

However Rogério Meneghini, a Brazilian science metrics specialist who directs SciELO, a database of open access journals, questions the value of the project, saying there is no way to be sure these students will continue with a career in science when they return.

Raising funding targets in Argentina

The research funding system in Argentina is quite different from Brazil's. The University of Buenos Aires (UBA) is typical of the country's institutions in that it doesn't have a tenure system, explains Alberto Barbieri, the dean of UBA.

He says the work of UBA professors is evaluated every seven years and retaining their chair depends on performance in scientific production, teaching and formation of human resources.

The major challenge in Argentina now seems to be raising overall funding for R&D. In 2013, the government launched a programme with a target of raising R&D expenditure from 0.65% to 1.65% of GDP, by attracting more private money for science through new public–private projects.

Some researchers are optimistic that this appears to be making Argentina more attractive place to work than flocking to greener pastures abroad. “There are a remarkable number of scientists returning to the country,” says Barbieri. Argentina now brags about its academic population, with three researchers per thousand people in the economically active population, twice as many as those doing science in Brazil.

Argentina's leading scientific institution in the index is its National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), with a WFC of 34. Conicet is a funding body that also has its own labs, and it is these that the Nature Index records.

Conicet and UBA have a similar profile in terms of subject spread, both with a reliance on physical sciences.

However it is third placed National University of La Plata that is the strongest in this field, with nearly four-fifths of research in physics. Part of the reason are the university's two flagship institutes — of Physics and Astrophysics — that are highly collaborative, the former being a part of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN.

Box 1: Chile: Global connections

Image: Dorling Kindersley Ltd/Alamy

The University of Chile stands apart in the region. The university can boast more than 700 international agreements for joint research projects. Many of them are in astronomy, a subject where the university publishes heavily: 94 of its 128 papers are in astrophysics journals.

The University of Chile has a healthy level of collaboration in the index: its ratio of article count to franctional count is 4.8, compared to a global average of 2.2. These collaborations help to leverage the university's 2,500 salaried academics, says Flavio Salazar, deputy rector for research and development. He says the university's scientists are highly productive and their work has significant impact, but are few in number.

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