Recently, I got a fantastic opportunity to participate in the SciFinder Future Leaders program sponsored by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society. I shared the experience with 21 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from around the world. We got to share our experiences and ideas about how to build a brighter future through chemistry.
The program offered twelve days of memorable moments and learning in areas such as innovation, information management for scientists, marketing, and alternative careers in science. The experience made me think about the current situation in Latin America. I considered how the valuable lessons we learned from the SciFinder Future Leaders program could be used to build a brighter future in that region.
Latin American countries have around 20 million students in their higher education systems, most of them studying in the three biggest countries of the region: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. However, less than 17% of graduates in the region attained STEM degrees. According to a 2015 report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mexico is the exception in the region with 24% of graduates attaining STEM degrees, one of the highest levels in the world. On the other hand, some countries in the region have fewer than 10% of their graduates focusing on STEM areas.
This lack of focus on STEM is a problem. It is not a secret that countries require science and technology education and investment for societal development and economic growth. It is essential for the region to bring more students to the STEM field. Addressing these problems will require a mixture of public and private policies, such as more scholarships and incentives to study in STEM fields.
A second valuable lesson I took from the SciFinder Future Leaders program that I would apply in Latin America is the need to incentivize innovation. The world has changed; never before has it been so urgent to incorporate new solutions to solve our old problems. During the program, we had a session dedicated to the study of innovation to solve our daily problems as students, or researchers, or even as a society. It was awesome to discover how many brilliant ideas can emerge when a small group of researchers and students are sitting together, and the environment promotes creativity.
How many ideas would see the light of day in Latin America if we could create an environment that supports innovation? It is not a secret that our region is at the bottom of the list when it comes to promoting innovative ideas. While some countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica, have some advantages, even their situation is not so different. Also, it is common to find authors from the region working on successful ventures in other parts of the world. Latin American societies need to take action to support innovation. They must create conditions that allow the development of new ideas and initiatives, fostering startups, non-governmental organizations, and companies focused on IT or science and technology.
I believe Latin America has serious challenges to overcome. We cannot break through these barriers if we continue thinking in the same old manner. We need to think of new ways to solve our persistent problems. This is the way Latin America can research its full potential.
Gabriela Gonzalez received her Bachelor of Science degree from the Central University of Venezuela. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Campinas in Brazil and a social entrepreneur. She created the becas_la Instagram account to increase Latin American students’ awareness of scholarships and other opportunities.