Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 318 | Enero 2008



Are Raw Materials Our Only Contribution to Science?

The state of the sciences in Nicaragua is deplorable. Without a national plan of scientific development and research priorities, with few human and material resources for science, technology, and innovation,and no overall culture, vision or ethics of science among the political class,we are certain to remain economically prostrate and underdeveloped.Nor can democracy flourish without science and a scientific culture.

Jorge A. Huete Pérez

The state of scientific development in Nicaragua is depressing and worrying. The current rate of growth in this area is increasingly threatening the country’s overall economic and social development. There are various explanations, but the factors that stand out are a lack of policies, competitive funds or concrete plans in science and technology, and the failure of the university research funding model. A point not often made is that without urgent action to correct these weaknesses, our country will continue to be nothing more than a provider of raw materials for science. A couple of cases illustrate my point.

Darwin’s theory at Laguna de Apoyo

In February 2006, the prestigious scientific journal Nature published an article demonstrating that sympatric evolution had occurred in fish in Nicaragua. This form of “speciation” is technically difficult to demonstrate, but Charles Darwin himself suggested it as early as 1859. The advantage of Laguna de Apoyo, where these scientific findings were made, is that volcanic crater lakes are essentially big fish tanks because they are so recent in origin—formed less than 20,000 years ago. In these natural laboratories, fish have little opportunity to exchange genetic information and all species are subject to the same variables or environmental conditions.

A group of domestic and foreign researchers had already recognized the natural potential of Nicaragua’s Apoyo and Xiloá crater lakes in a modest research publication of Managua’s Central American University (UCA) in which our researchers announced the discovery of new species. “Sympatric speciation may be taking place in all the crater lakes,” they stated. “We propose that the government of Nicaragua and UNESCO designate this unique region a ‘World Heritage Site.’”

Besides providing valuable biodiversity for our planet, these and other marvels of Nicaragua’s natural and geographic resources are a world waiting to be explored, an enormous opportunity for major discoveries. In this case, a group of foreigners got all the glory while the domestic team went unnoticed. At least some minimal benefit should have come out of the research in the form of training and thesis material for a couple of students, but as there was no prior cooperation agreement, the foreign team was under no obligation. They simply came to exploit the “mines” of our biodiversity. Receiving nothing in exchange, the country continues to provide the raw materials.

Some of the intrigue that went on during the research makes this case even more telling. For example, after offering their logistical support in a spirit of friendly disinterest, the UCA researchers didn’t even learn of the findings until much later, when they were published in Nature.

When Nicaraguan children invented a language

The world’s most recently invented language originated in Nicaragua. Over a surprisingly short time—fewer than twenty years—a small group of deaf-mute children and youth in Managua’s San Judas and Villa Libertad neighborhoods transformed a primary communication system—miming—into a real language, on a par with English or Spanish, that follows the basic rules of all human languages. Known as Nicaraguan Sign Language, this home-grown form of communication demonstrated that children possess sophisticated language mechanisms and that there is an instinctive and innate element to linguistic communication.

This kind of scoop, which could not pass without note in the scientific world, generated academic debate among researchers of the stature of Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker—the latter a Harvard professor and author of The Language Instinct. Nicaragua’s sign language has added new fuel to opposing hypotheses about nature versus nurture and innate versus acquired.

While the birthplace of this new language was a school for deaf children, founded in San Judas in 1977 and converted several years later into a vocational school, news of the language was made public by US researchers almost a decade after the Nicaraguan teachers at the school alerted foreign experts to the phenomenon.

In 2004, the publication of these findings in Science, the most widely-circulated scientific journal in the world, attracted the attention of the mass media. The BBC announced it with the headline “Nicaraguan Children Create a New Language.” And The New York Times proclaimed: “A Linguistic Big Bang,” associating it with nothing less than the explosion that created the universe. It was the US researchers who became famous with the publicizing of this new “made in Nicaragua” language, as there were no Nicaraguans on the research team—despite the existence of domestic researchers interested in the anthropology of language and studies on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast languages.

The alarming state of things

These two examples attest to the scientific research potential of our resources—whether biological or experiential. They also reveal several problems. With so much material at our disposal, why are Nicaraguans not involved, if not as central players then at least as research team members? What benefits—financial or otherwise—do these findings leave behind in the country? Does Nicaragua have the capacity to conduct high-level research? The answers to these questions lead us to an analysis of the country’s science and technology capacity.

A number of studies evaluating the state of science in Nicaragua reveal a sad reality: the quality of the country’s human resources and technological infrastructure is barely on a level with Sub-Saharan Africa. Judging by the number of scientific publications in international databases, Nicaraguan researchers’ productivity is extremely poor. Nicaragua accounts for 27 articles per year in the SCI database, while our neighbor Costa Rica accounts for 10 times more (285), and Mexico 300 times more. The average number of researchers per million people in Latin America is 250; Nicaragua has just 20 or 25.

Nicaragua invests less in research and development than any other Latin American country: 0.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP), below the median of 0.5% and far below UNESCO’s recommended minimum of 1%. Experts see a link between this low investment level and Nicaragua’s low rank in the Human Development Index. A situation this bad seems bound to affect economic growth in general and the productive sector’s capacity to expand. Low research and development levels prevent the adoption of knowledge and technology to drive sustained and balanced national economic growth.

Some hopeful signs

Despite all the weaknesses in the system, hopeful signs sometimes crop up. Nicaraguan scientists organized into the emergent Nicaraguan Scientific Association (ACN) have proposed the founding of a Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences. And the current program of the National Council of Universities’ member universities called “The Enterprising University,” implemented with support from Chalmers University and Swedish cooperation funds, is also an inspiring example.

Certain actions by young university students frequently come to our attention whose potential is both reassuringfor its enthusiasm and surprising because so unexpected. Of course, the situation is better than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but comparing us to ourselves may be a self-placating tactic; reality doesn’t look quite so good if we measure our miniscule progress against that of other nations and realize that the difference that matters is one of speed, not distance.

For reasons that are hard to explain,
we have no scientific development policy

Nicaragua was the last country in Latin America to organize a research promotion structure. Others began creating National Science and Technology Councils, mandated to invest in technological R&D, in the 1950s and 1960s. Nicaragua’s council, CONICYT, was established by presidential decree almost four decades later, in 1995, and only began to function at the end of 2000—with no state budget. Lacking funds, its meager activities have had to be financed through assistance from multinational banks. What is notable is not just the state’s delay in setting up such a council, but also that the idea came not from Nicaraguans, but from a recommendation by the bank officials themselves. As such, the government’s disinterest in supporting the Council’s functions seems natural enough.

While researchers had high hopes about CONICYT’s duties, it has been perceived to date as non-functional and isolated from the research sector’s main activities and actors, located primarily in four or five universities. The Council’s relationship with these academic institutions is undermined by its inexperience and lack of leadership. There has been talk about formulating a policy on science and technology and preparing a specific law on the topic ever since the Council was created 12 years ago, but as yet nothing concrete has been done.

It is not easy to explain why neither a plan nor a law has been formulated in over 12 years. One reason has undoubtedly been the Council’s lack of stability. Initially created as a secretariat in the Ministry of Development, Industry and Trade (MIFIC), so as to emphasize its connection with business competitiveness and productivity, the Council was then moved to the Vice President’s office. Its functions ended up being divided between MIFIC and the Vice Presidency when the struggle between President Bolaños and Vice President Rizo made it apparent that the Council’s role could be inflated from its new location.

A scientific development plan need not be ambitious or difficult to shape. A minimal agenda should include plans for training human resources, fitting out basic research and teaching laboratories and investing in applied research projects. Most importantly, the plan must be designed to help generate and appropriate knowledge that serves society.

Research without priorities or links
to economic and social development

In addition to having no national scientific and technological development plan, Nicaragua has also failed to determine research priorities. Three quarters of the few publications produced by Nicaraguan researchers fall within two major development areas: health and the environment. Next come publications in technology, agriculture and the social sciences. Curiously enough, though, if we determine what the main research areas are on the basis of the number of research programs, centers and institutes dedicated to each one (a total of 54), a different conclusion emerges: research strengths are concentrated in production, economics and, to a lesser degree, the environment.

The UCA alone—which is a private Jesuit university but also receives some public funds—is home to 25-30% of the country’s total research institutions. With so many universities in Nicaragua (53 in 2006), we might expect excellent research capacity, but the terrible quality and infrastructure of many of these institutions of higher learning—if they can be called that—prevents them doing any more than cranking out more or less well trained professionals.

The apparent contradiction between institutional strengths (in production and economics) and the production of knowledge (in health) suggests a poor and uneven return on investment and highlights a mismatch between the direction of scientific and technological effort and the country’s most pressing needs.

A 2004 research performance evaluation report by the National Council of Universities (CNU) indicates that research results have little social impact, responding instead to the specific demands of donor organizations and in many cases to the personal interests of researchers, rather than national priorities. According to Carlos Tünnermann—a scholar of Nicaraguan higher education—linkage has not been achieved between the academic, state and productive sectors, whose interrelation “depends in good measure on solid scientific and technological development.”

The CNU report and other evaluations agree that no important efforts have been made to link installed capacity to Nicaragua’s specific economic and social development needs. For this to occur, there is a need to rethink the public research funding model, which so far has neither provided enough funding nor resulted in any clear improvement in Nicaraguans’ well-being.

Development yes, but why research?

The minor role accorded to research in the country’s development is perhaps one of the underlying reasons for the disconnection between capacity and needs. Although Law 89 on university autonomy recognizes the production of knowledge as strategic to national development, government plans don’t consider the role of the universities. The development plan formulated by the Bolaños government not only marginalized research and development, but actually went so far as to state that the country would have to undertake alliances with foreign universities in order to promote the much-vaunted competitiveness “clusters.” This approach was both a slight to the domestic universities and a mockery of them.

The ignorance of and disdain for science and technology in the Bolaños era was also evident in his choice of priorities. Invited to deliver the inaugural speech at an important biotechnology conference to be attended by high-level foreign and domestic experts, including Nobel Prize winner in medicine Richard Roberts, the President declined at the last moment in favor of cutting the ribbon at the opening of a small discount shoe store.

Some of the big international organizations are also occasionally unclear about the importance of scientific research for Nicaragua, and the tendency of the international cooperation community in this area is toward decreased funding. Referring to the contribution of the social sciences, Nicaraguan researcher José Luis Rocha recounts in Research and Social Change how a foreign aid representative asked: “I can understand why you have development programs, but what’s the point of you doing research?”

Is there public funding for research?

Until now, most research in Nicaragua has been done in the country’s main universities, grouped in the CNU, although we are now experiencing a significant increase in research by units and centers attached to government ministries such as health (MINSA), environment and natural resources (MARENA) and agriculture and forestry (MAG-FOR). Some nongovernmental organizations are also doing certain kinds of research—or subcontracting universities to do it—particularly on social issues, the environment and rural development.

The main funding for public universities comes from the state’s allocation of 6% of the national budget. While the exact amounts that the various universities use to finance research have not been quantified, it is estimated that a good part goes to pay research professor’s salaries. In other words, it is the researcher not the research that is funded in some cases, such as the research centers and institutes of the UCA, which cover their research staff salaries with part of the state funds. This practice is used in Europe to encourage talented young people recently hired by the big universities, while in the case of established professors the research itself is funded instead.

Thus, while there are no specific state allocations, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the Nicaraguan state doesn’t invest in scientific research; it has indirectly been doing so via the 6% provided since the university autonomy law was passed in 1990. A more appropriate statement, perhaps, would be that the universities invest in research using public funds from the 6%.

What the state does not do is allocate additional resources the way the National Science and Technology Councils in other Latin American countries do. Nor is it common practice in Nicaragua for private business to sponsor or finance university research, as it does in many industrialized countries. Recently, businesses have started to subcontract universities for diagnostic and consulting services, but this commercial relationship is not without its problems. At first blush, it has the advantage of providing liquid resources to the universities, but such consultancies are significantly limited in scope and depth, which is not a positive thing for them. Some so-called research centers and institutes have given in to the chance to obtain resources by selling their services, relegating scientific research to second place. This may be one explanation for their low output in scientific publications.

Meanwhile, private businesses usually resolve their problems by importing technologies or contracting foreign experts, which they deem to offer better quality than is available domestically. The private sector’s recent philanthropic interest in education focuses solely on primary education.

The linear model doesn’t work

The other important source of research funding in Nicaraguan universities is international cooperation, especially from Sweden, through the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA/SAREC). Denmark, Norway and Japan also make significant contributions.

The capacity-building model followed by the Nicaraguan universities is based on the premise that development in science and technology must start with training human resources through masters and doctoral degrees and creating basic infrastructure. The results of completed research then benefit society. This linear model has proven insufficient and failed to produce the expected results.

According to the 2004 CNU report, only three faculty members had obtained doctorates in the sciences after 20 years of Swedish cooperation, and while another two dozen were still working on their degrees, some of them will clearly never go the distance. Referring to the role of international cooperation agencies in capacity building, Brazilian expert Lea Velho states in her article, “Lessons from Nicaragua,” that the existing models urgently need to be revised to reflect the non-linear nature of innovation and include different actors and forms of knowledge. In addition, they need to reflect issues of social responsibility and relevance.

ON Paper and in reality

Although most research is justified on paper as “relevant to the national reality” and most projects propose to solve “pressing problems,” the resource allocation model doesn’t necessarily produce the expected benefits and return on investment in practice. First of all, even in research design, there’s a clear divorce between producers of knowledge (the researchers) and users of the results (society in general), who are expected to feel the impact of the research. Second, it is hardly the researchers’ place to evaluate results of research they were contracted to do according to someone else’s specifications.

There are some positive examples. The work that led to the recently approved “Law on Responsible Maternity and Paternity” included elements of research and action supported financially by Holland, among others. Given the scope of the law, it’s hard to believe that it got its start years ago in an informal meeting between the then-Family Minister Carmen Largaespada, an international cooperation official, the Ombudsman for Children and Adolescents and a researcher from the UCA. For something with this kind of national importance and impact to succeed, a range of social sectors had to be involved—including the universities, to provide support through research on using DNA to establish paternity. But, notwithstanding the achievements of this effort, a detailed evaluation of the program is still needed, as well as appropriate monitoring and application of the law.

Solving problems through
science, technology and innovation

The linear model of public research funding has been consolidated through the support of foreign cooperation agencies. A 2007 report from the UN Commission for Trade and Development, evaluating World Bank cooperation, argues that programs are disconnected and coordination is weak among human resources in science, technology and innovation, and in the sector’s development projects. It further points out that countries need more support in formulating and implementing realistic policies. In this context, a new model of support for capacity-building in science, technology and innovation is starting to be implemented.

The new model sees capacity-building aimed at solving the country’s concrete problems as the focus of cooperation. In other words, the focus isn’t on science per se but on science that seeks to solve problems. The point is not to support the university researcher, but rather the citizen and the community. It follows that all stakeholders and beneficiaries should be included in program design.

In poor countries such as Nicaragua, the technical-scientific sector is so small that it would be absurd to believe that we can deal with all the problems of poverty and development with our limited capacities. And the absence of a national development plan makes it difficult to establish institutional policies that contribute to development.

Establishing priorities is a difficult balance

Effectively helping satisfy the population’s growing needs is an enormous challenge—one almost impossible to meet. Scientific-technological innovation and capacity-building programs that help develop, use and disseminate knowledge at all levels must therefore be given priority over the production of knowledge. But establishing priorities does not mean overlooking the need to build basic, broadly-shared knowledge. Doing so would be a serious error, making the situation even worse. What is required is a reasonable balance, keeping in mind what needs are most urgent.

The country itself must define this balance. And this task requires local interlocutors with the dignity and intelligence to negotiate properly with foreign cooperation agencies and counterpart researchers, who may not necessarily find in this negotiation enough of an incentive to their own interests. And of course there will always be fortune hunters seeking a new windfall.

We also need to recognize that researchers from donor countries may lack both confidence in the rigor of research done by locals and knowledge of the issues Nicaraguans have to deal with. Nicaraguan researchers’ lack of publication in prestigious international journals as an academic credential and their relative disinterest in participating in multinational research projects discourage foreigners and lead them work on their own.

Who chooses projects and how?

Developing domestic capacity in science, technology and innovation must involve a profound rethinking of research management and a new approach to guaranteeing that the research conducted in the universities is of acceptable quality.

While Nicaragua’s main universities have activities and programs to encourage research, the quality needs to be greatly improved. The universities’ quarterly reports to the CNU should be analyzed and feedback provided so that the process becomes a learning opportunity.

Peer review of research is not common practice but must become obligatory if project selection is to reflect the scientific merit, relevance and social impact of research rather than being based on quotas. During a last-minute granting process recently—perhaps to allocate some yearend budget surplus—an ad-hoc committee of officials from the universities’ research offices, without the advantage of an interdisciplinary evaluation team, assumed knowledge of disciplines from agriculture to medicine to biotechnology. It fell to an anthropologist to evaluate biotechnology projects. What hope can there be that projects chosen like that will meet quality and relevance criteria?

Much ado about nothing

The goals of academic conferences often seem more quantitative than qualitative. A large number of posters and presentations may seem impressive in a report to donors, but careful examination of the quality of the work would reveal it to be unsatisfactory.

Astonishing records were announced at the CNU’s second scientific congress, held last December to coincide with the VII Ibero-American Science and Technology Forum (CYTED-IBEROEKA)—which it was Nicaragua’s turn to host. According to the announcement, Nicaragua exceeded the preceding event, held in Buenos Aires, by more than 200%, even though Argentina is one of the region’s leaders in science. Nicaraguan academics were said to have found themselves on equal footing with the representatives from some 20 participating countries. Such rhetorical exaggerations simply can’t be made about a country with fewer than 60 researchers at the PhD level—fewer than a single university in Brazil. They may inflate pride and momentarily raise the spirits of participants, but they seriously distort the truth, the crude national reality, and undermine Nicaragua’s credibility with the donor community.

“Gangs” in academia, too?

Consolidating research evaluation must lead to more appropriate use of our scarce resources, fulfillment of proposed objectives and creation of a better cost-benefit ratio. The evaluation of quality must also consider the ethical aspects of research activities. The increase of both individual and institutional fraud in science around the world is a concern for developing countries, where research funds are scarce. The lack of a well-structured and transparent system could lead to the painful situation of public funds being managed as the booty of a few academic fiefdoms and “gangs.” (I borrow the term “gang” here from Andrés Pérez Baltodano, who states that Nicaragua has “political gangs” rather than parties.)

To make matters worse, the process of the Evaluation and Accreditation Council formed in 2007 to evaluate the quality of education cannot be compared to experiences in other countries, where, to quote renowned educator Rafael Lucio Gil, such councils “are formed on the basis of academic prestige, knowledge and experience in education.” Although basic academic requirements were established for Council membership in Nicaragua, the fact that National Assembly representatives appoint the members threatens to make selection dependent on political “pacts” and negotiations.

Quality in research cannot be considered immutable, given constant social change and the population’s growing needs. Evaluation results should be made public, in response to a growing public demand for information on education in general and on how the 6% allocation is being invested in particular.

The politicians don’t seem to understand

The case of the Darwinian evolution of fish in Nicaraguan crater lakes and the invention of a sign language by our children should serve to warn us of our wasted treasure of material resource diversity and Nicaraguan creativity. With better support, researchers could invent things even from misfortune, becoming experts on hurricanes, epidemics and volcanoes. In the end, the knowledge produced would have to lead to tangible results, such as disaster management, monitoring and mitigation, or the control and elimination of vectors of epidemics, all of which would contribute to the population’s well-being. But such aspirations have no chance of becoming reality without a consistent and sustained program.

Modern states, even the poorest ones, try to strengthen their research and innovation systems and promote cooperation between the academic and private sectors. For years, Nicaragua has suffered political, economic and ethical crises, and they are reflected negatively in the country’s scientific and technical capacity. It’s no wonder that a conscientious analysis of the results of national investment or foreign cooperation turns out to be discouraging. What is strange, though, is that in this 21st century of economic and social globalization, our politicians don’t seem to comprehend that no country can emerge from economic prostration without scientific and technological innovation programs, and that investment in science is investment in development.

The responsibility falls to the universities

In this context, the universities, as important agents of development, have to adopt new forms of research management and funding to guide the efforts and resources. This must include planning, organization, supervision, execution, monitoring and evaluation of the research system.

There has been little relevant university research planning in Nicaragua. In a 2006 analysis, Edmundo Torres Godoy noted that the budgets of many of the universities that receive funds from the 6% allocation don’t include “projections of how much will be invested in research.” The mere fact that the universities don’t have concrete research funding plans reflects the subordination of research to other university functions and impedes the transformation of university-as-professionalizing-institution into university-as-research-institution.

In the absence of solid science policy and a coordinating body that inspires respect, responsibility for encouraging the country’s scientific-technical development falls to the universities. Meeting that responsibility requires designing a research agenda that responds to the country’s needs and ensures a return to society. Decision-makers need to be convinced, with data in hand, of the relevance of research to resolving pressing problems and preparing us for the future challenges of globalization. The universities themselves—not only their boards, but also their teaching and administrative staff—are the first that must to be convinced of the role of research and, consequently, the first to salvage the research task from marginalization so that science can find its own place.

Innovating with autochthonous plans

To meet these challenges, the universities must be prepared to undertake a series of innovations in their organizational model and ways of working. As Carlos Tünnermann says in “The University We Need for the 21st Century,” they must work toward a transformation that “establishes a university of socially-relevant innovation.” And to ensure that scientific research responds to the country’s needs and gaps, the public has to know what researchers are doing.

In the face of poverty, underdevelopment and the disquieting context of reduced foreign aid, it has never been more necessary for research funding and design to be grounded in a completely indigenous plan, which means that most of the funds must come from central budgets and some from domestic funding competitions. Given that Nicaragua won’t be able to move forward without foreign assistance for now, changes must also be made in the cooperation model, to promote a scientific culture in general and ensure that priority is given to developing research infrastructure, including in-country doctoral education.

The scientific organizations can also help by providing needed international credibility. The Nicaraguan Scientific Association’s November 2007 application to Canada’s International Development Research Centre for support to CONICYT is a good example of what can be done.

Lack of scientific culture,
lack of democracy

Immersed as we are in the dynamic of integration and the coexistence of global cultures, it is impossible to imagine appropriate democratic participation in Nicaragua without education and culture—including the culture of science. Lacking a functional scientific culture, the most disadvantaged social groups find themselves prevented from raising their voices in decision-making on science and technology, such as DNA testing to prove paternity, the genome, transgenic food or the cultivation of tilapia in Lake Cocibolca, to name a few topics of interest that have come up in the media recently.

The criminalization of therapeutic abortion, used as an issue for politicking and religious manipulation in the 2006 election campaign, offers a clear example of the public’s need for basic knowledge and information on scientific matters. Besides providing the basis for independent and well-informed opinions, a minimal scientific culture would allow ordinary citizens to participate meaningfully in debates over this and other matters.

The lack of a state research policy and the will to build a scientific culture, together with the retrograde persistence of ignorance and superstition, demonstrate a lack of respect toward the Nicaraguan people and their most pressing needs.

Jorge A. Huete-Pérez is director of the molecular biology center of Managua’s Central American University (UCA).

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