South America science in Nature


The metaphor is inevitable, in spite of it being harsh. The article entitled “Stars of South American Science” of the special June 11 issue of Nature offers a perspective on scientific development in South America and illustrates, by means of a map, the distribution of research throughout the region against a dark background. The following text describes this image:

Like the night sky, the overall sweep of science in South America can look pretty dark. Brazil is the only country on the continent that spends more than 1% of its gross domestic product on research and development, and even that investment sits far below what other countries of similar means are ploughing into science”. (Nature 2014a) (Free Translation)

A sufficiently detailed analysis of the research output of the region, both qualitative and quantitative, is reported in the five articles appearing in this special issue, and in the midst of this darkness, specks of light are emerging. The distribution of research output is still very uneven, and the challenges in training researchers and creating the necessary infrastructure still persist in the midst of political instability in many of the region’s countries. However, investment is increasing and centers of excellence are being created, in disciplines such as agriculture in Colombia and molecular biology in Argentina, which are gaining international recognition.

One of the key factors responsible for driving the development of and improvement in the quality of research in the region, according to academics whose views were solicited by Nature¹, is international collaboration, both in the form of hosting young South American scientists in renowned laboratories world-wide, and of visits made by foreign researchers to South American institutions. In this regard, South America still loses out to other developing countries. In 2013, Brazil sent 11 thousand graduate and post-graduate students to the USA, less than Turkey and Vietnam, which are smaller countries economically and in terms of population. This number is equal to one third of the students sent by China to US universities.

Student exchanges should, however, be carried out in such a way as not to encourage a brain drain, as happened in previous years. Moreover, countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia are making great efforts to encourage researchers who had remained abroad after an exchange period to return home. An example of this is the Raices (Roots) Program set up by the Argentine Ministry of Science which has succeeded in attracting back to Argentina more than one thousand scientists who had emigrated to the USA and Europe. However, more than programs with this objective in mind, the best way to keep and bring back researchers to their home countries, according to the Argentine Minister of Science and Culture, Lino Barañao, “is to create a competitive research environment with top-quality, interdisciplinary research centres. Even if you offer a good salary or pay relocation expenses, without those conditions, a good researcher won’t return.”(Nature 2014c) (Free Translation)

However, international collaboration is fostered largely by visits made to institutions situated in South America by foreign researchers. But, few colleagues from the developed world appear to beinclined to make such an effort, according to South American scientists. Even short visits to participate in conferences or give papers, and visits to laboratories can be very productive, even if they are carried out at a distance using videoconferencing facilities. There is a tendency in the region to reward quantity instead of quality of research output, and in this respect, the assistance of experienced researchers can help to evaluate research carried out in South America more objectively.

In any event, the investments used to send researchers from the region abroad, which have taken account of the fact that these people may not return, show a positive balance, since the experience and knowledge these scientists have acquired normally result in them taking a leadership role in successful ventures in their countries of origin, which lead to high quality work and international recognition. It is a positive and opportune sign that the governments of South American countries are realizing this.

With the economic growth of the last twenty years, and the greater investments made in research and development, there has been an increase in the publications arising from research undertaken in South America; however, this has not been accompanied by an equal growth in quality. Attention is also drawn to its unequal distribution between these countries: Brazil stands out as far as the number of publications is concerned; Chile is the holder of the greatest number of patents, while Argentina, the country with the highest proportion of researchers per number of workers, is even outperforming Brazil and China in this regard.

Brazil stands out because, over the last twenty years, the volume of its research output has risen by more than a factor of five –this figure is taken from the number of articles in Elsevier’s Scopus database in 2013. This means that the country today accounts for more than two-thirds of South America’s research output. However, in terms of articles per capita, its output is broadly similar to Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on the same basis and year.

Argentina, on the other hand, has succeeded in achieving an impact greater than the world average, outperforming Brazil. Chile, thanks to successful international collaboration through its astronomical observatories and its research into the genetics of food cultivation, has increased its research output both qualitatively and quantitatively. The majority of the publications coming out of Peru involve collaboration with other countries, and the most cited articles reflect the major issues in public health that the country is facing: prevention of HIV, tuberculosis and lupus. Venezuela is the only South American country to show a reduction of around 30% in its research output over the last five years.

The total research output of South America grew from about 2% of world output in 1996 to 4% in 2012. However, the impact of this research may well be underestimated because around one third of South American publications are not indexed in major citation databases such as Elsevier’s Scopus and Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science. It is important to highlight the fact that as of 2013, the SciELO Citation Index is part of the Web of Science platform. This initiative allows citations to SciELO articles in the Web of Science database to be counted, thereby increasing their visibility and impact.

In 2013, South America’s scholarly impact rate was around 80% of the world’s average. The countries which are situated above this threshold owe their superior performance to international collaboration –Peru, Argentina and Chile being examples of this.

Brazil owes less than 25% of its publications produced between 2008 and 2012 to international collaboration. However, Brazil and Argentina are central to co-authorship networks within South America. Brazil collaborates principally with Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay. On the other hand, Argentina’s major collaborators are Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay. As far as collaboration with countries outside of South America is concerned, the USA is the most frequent research partner for Brazil and Argentina. Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Chile and Uruguay all have a higher rate of international collaboration with countries outside of South America than with their neighbors in this region.

When the cost of research and development is considered, the countries of South America show an increase greater than the growth of their own economies. Brazil heads the countries of the region, spending in the order of 1% of its GDP in 2011 on research and development. For the sake of comparison, the USA spent 2.8% of its GDP in the same year. The remaining countries spend between 0.1% and 0.5% of their GDP on research and development, with Argentina, Chile and Uruguay spending the most.

In South America, the percentage of research financed through private funding is relatively low, in contrast to many countries in the developed world. In Brazil, the figure for private funding is 50%. Even so, the number of patents registered is low when compared with industrialized countries and other South American countries. However, World Bank economic indicators show that Brazil should have registered 50% more patents than it actually did between 2006 and 2010. In this respect, Chile is ahead of the South American countries in the number of patents registered, with 2.5 times the number registered by Brazil. Nevertheless, the participation of the region internationally sits at just under 2% of the total patents registered worldwide.

Despite the indicators presented above showing that the research maturity of the region still has a long way to go, many countries in South America have developed specific expertise and excellence in various areas of knowledge that Nature considers worthy of highlighting².

Chile: upward trajectory

Chile has become a key player in the world of international astrophysics due to the installation of powerful telescopes beginning in 1964, located in the country’s highlands – which have the clearest skies in the world – and to the Instituto Millenium de Astrofísica of the Pontifícia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago under the direction of Mario Hamuy whose discoveries helped to measure the expansion of the universe, which led to the Nobel Prize in Physics for Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess in 2011³.

The European Extremely Large Telescope is being built in the north of Chile and is expected to be inaugurated in 2020, by which time the country will be hosting 70% of the global observation surface of high power optical and infrared telescopes. In return, Chilean scientists will have 10% of the observing time available at each of the telescopes installed in the country. The Chilean researchers, however, consider this time given by the european consortium to not be enough, and express aspirations of not only hosting the telescopes but also of participating in their construction. However, the researchers are concerned about the governance of science in Chile since the resignation eight months ago of JoséMiguel Aguilera, director of the Chilean national funding agency in science and technology – CONICYT , and the placing on hold of plans by the country’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, to create a ministry of science and technology.

Brazil: the leadership of São Paulo

Despite the large territorial extent of Brazil, comparable to Europe, the author of this article highlights the state of São Paulo as the wealthiest in Brazil, which publishes more than half of the research of the country. This success is attributed to the Fundação de Amparo àPesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) – State of São Paulo Research Foundation. The article states that in 2013 FAPESP invested US $512 million in science, more than many of the countries of the region. For the sake of comparison, the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) – the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development in Brazil – has a national budget for 2014 of close to US $650 million for research, science and innovation.

FAPESP’s budget is guaranteed by the Constitution at 1% of the state’s tax revenue. FAPESP’s success in fostering research and education inspired other Brazilian states to create their own “Fundações de Amparo àPesquisa”(Research Foundations). However, FAPESP is the one with the largest budget. The Foundation invests 73% of its budget in basic research, close to 10% in infrastructure, and the rest in applied research. Medical research receives about a third of FAPESP’s budget. According to its Scientific Director, Carlos Henrique de Britto Cruz (CATANZARO, M., et al 2014e), “One difference in FAPESP’s work is that we invest a lot in basic science”. He says that it is all part of an effort to produce high-quality work.“We want the best projects.”

Martyn Poliakoff, Foreign Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, UK, says “FAPESP is a very interesting model for us because São Paulo is one of the few states in the world where support of research is linked directly to GDP”. (CATANZARO, M., et al 2014e)

Brazil still faces inequalities in the economies and development of its various regions, which is reflected in their research output. According to Clélio Campolina, Minister of Science and Technology, the fact that the state of São Paulo receives the largest state contribution does not diminish federal contributions. “We want to improve other states, but also reward excellence”(CATANZARO, M., et al 2014e), he says.

Colombia: Growth Center

Ranchers in western Colombia developed a variety of grasses that seem to have been growing there for a long time. But the plants are new. Herds that pasture in these fields reach their market weight in just 18 months, instead of the 4 years normally required.

These so-called “super grasses”were developed at CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in the north of the country. These same grasses were also successfully cultivated in the savannas of South America, thanks to the joint work of researchers from CIAT and the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) – the Brazilian Corporation for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA). CIAT was one of the first members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) consortium. Created in 1967, CGIAR employs 325 researchers and has an annual budget of US $114.4 million from the multi-donor CGIAR fund and from other international donors.

Besides its work on pastures, CIAT has been dedicating itself to the cultivation of improved varieties of beans, rice and cassava, staple crops that are important for food security in poor rural areas. According to Ruben Echeverría, Director General of CIAT, “Genetic improvement of these crops has proved to be a powerful weapon for combating hunger and poverty”. For example, beans developed by CIAT that have come from Latin American varieties now feed close to 30 million people in Africa. Also, 70% of the rice in South America and 90% of the cassava in Asia come from CIAT cultivation programs. “Cassava is now a multibillion-dollar business for starch production in Asia, providing income to smallholders,”states Andy Jarvis, leader in policy research at CIAT.

Argentina: The RNA detectives

In many laboratories in South America, difficulties with research budgets, and purchases of reagents that cost three times their price in Europe or the United States and take three months to deliver, are daily obstacles.

Despite this, the molecular biologist Alberto Kornblihtt has his own motives in persisting with his innovative work in alternative RNA splicing, an area of study he helped create, in the laboratory of physiology and molecular biology at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. “We may be on the periphery of scientific research. But it’s not an impossible place to do science,”says Kornblihtt.

This was a productive year for Kornblihtt and his group of researchers. Their research resulted in a publication in the prestigious journal Science⁴. The phenomenon of alternative RNA splicing makes possible a single gene expression giving birth to many messenger RNA (mRNA) by means of different patterns of cutting and splicing, allowing a single gene to be expressed in different proteins. This phenomenon was observed in humans by the author during his postdoctoral fellowship in the UK. After returning to Argentina in 1984, he formed a research group and to this day continues to study this topic.

Kornblihtt attributes a good part of the research currently done in Argentina to the legacy of scientists such as Bernando Houssay and Luis Leloir, winners, respectively, of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1947 and in Chemistry in 1970. “The scientific institutions they founded led to generations of disciples that continue to do the science of today,” says Kornblihtt. He continues this tradition, giving undergraduate classes in molecular biology at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. “Imagine that on the first day of classes, young students find themselves before the country’s most well-known researcher teaching molecular biology classes with an absolutely contagious enthusiasm,”says his colleague Diego Golombek of the National University of Quilmes in Buenos Aires. “He’s had an influence over the new generations of biologists”.

Final comments

A comment published in Nature in 2012 on the topic “Research policy: How to build Science capacity⁵” includes statements from leaders in research funding from eight emerging countries. Brazil is represented by the Scientific Director of FAPESP, Carlos Henrique de Britto Cruz, and his statements are perfectly in line with the topics discussed in the June 11 edition of Nature, which serve not only Brazil but the region as a whole:

Boosting Brazilian science requires enhancement of the quality and the social, economic and intellectual impact of research. Reviewers, institutions and agencies still overvalue quantity — of articles or of students. Quality must be better recognized and rewarded in academic careers and in the selection of research-funding proposals.

Researchers need greater institutional support — including grant-management offices — as well as better links to government, business and non-governmental organizations. Systems for university governance should promote academic values and merit above petty politics and cronyism. Universities should have effective autonomy.

Improving basic education, stimulating young people to seek scientific careers and better distributing the scientific enterprise across the country are also essential to Brazil’s development. Obtaining these goals and expanding the base of the system does not preclude raising academic standards at the top. (Nature 2012)


¹ Open goal: International researchers can help to improve the scientific enterprise in South America. Editorial. Nature. 2014b, vol. 510. Available from:

² CATANZARO, M., et al. South American Science: Big players. Nature. 2014e, vol. 510. Available from:

³ The Nobel Prize in Physics 2011 –

⁴ PETRILLO, E., et al. A Chloroplast Retrograde Signal Regulates Nuclear Alternative Splicing. Science. 2014, vol. 344, n. 6182. Available from:

⁵ Research policy: How to build Science capacity. Nature. 2012, vol. 490. Available from:


CATANZARO, M., et al. South American Science: Big players. Nature. 2014e, vol. 510. Available from:

Fraser B. Research training: Homeward bound. Nature. 2014c, vol. 510. Available from:

Research policy: How to build Science capacity. Nature. 2012, vol. 490. Available from:

SciELO Citation Index in the Web of Science. SciELO in Perspective. [viewed 21 June 2014]. Available from:

Stars of South American Science. Nature. 2014a, vol. 510. Available from:

VAN NOORDEN, R. The impact gap: South America by the numbers. Nature. 2014d, vol. 510. Available from:


lilianAbout Lilian Nassi-Calò

Lilian Nassi-Calò studied chemistry at Instituto de Química – USP, holds a doctorate in Biochemistry by the same institution and a post-doctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Wuerzburg, Germany. After her studies, she was a professor and researcher at IQ-USP. She also worked as an industrial chemist and presently she is Coordinator of Scientific Communication at BIREME/PAHO/WHO and a collaborator of SciELO.


Translated from the original in Portuguese by Nicholas Cop Consulting.


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