Biotechnology in Latin America: high activity, low international visibility

With no doubt, biotechnology will be the most important technological revolution of the next century. Biotechnology will change the way we produce food, the way we treat or prevent diseases and will provide new ways to preserve the environment. Biotechnology, as well, will change the way we think about life.

In the academic and industrial fields, biotechnology is flourishing, particularly in the more developed countries. Scientific publications and patents are common ways to spread the knowledge in the field and they are indicators of the biotechnological activity. What is the situation in Latin America?

Reliable statistical data in Latin American countries is generally scarce. In a recent analysis we conducted, in an international database specialised in biotechnology, indicated that five countries in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Chile) represent more than 90% of the scientific production of the area. Authors from these countries, altogether, published a total of 1700 papers (between 1982 and 1995).

The trend in the number of publications showed cycles, with minimum in 1982 (92 papers), 1987 (77 papers) and maximum in 1984 (186 papers) and in 1995 (192 papers). The total contribution of these countries is about 1.3% of the total universe of the database. This figure is very similar to what has been quoted for all scientific fields in the area. This figure confirms that, in terms of internationally recognised scientific publications, biotechnology in Latin American countries has a very small contribution to the world productivity. Interestingly, though not surprising, the total number of publications in biotechnology correlated quite well with the resources invested in Science and Technology by such countries.

A further and deeper analysis of the Mexican case indicated that the publications of Mexicans quoted in such database, are less than 20% of the total estimated number of Mexican publications on biotechnology. I believe that this situation could be similar in other Latin American countries. This is an indicative of the relatively low visibility of the Latin American biotechnological production (in terms of scientific papers) in international accessible databases.

In terms of patents, an analysis of the same database showed that, overall, the same countries constitute the majority of the Latin American universe. However, the number of patents quoted in such international database is extremely low. Analysing the data between 1982 and 1997 showed that no patents from authors of those five countries were quoted before 1994. A total of only 28 patents were found for the years 1995 to 1997. This constitutes 0.16% of the world universe for patents quoted in that database.

A further analysis of the Mexican situation indicated the same as that regarding the scientific publications: the universe quoted in the international database is a very small proportion (less than 8%) of the patents in biotechnology registered by Mexicans in the Mexican Office of Intellectual Property. It is likely that this situation could be similar in other Latin American countries. As it was the case with scientific publications, international visibility of patents by Latin American authors is very poor.

This situation contrasts drastically with the actual level of biotechnological activity in Latin America, judged by events organised recently in the region. Two of these congresses, one organised in 1997 and another which will take place in September of 1999, are indicative of the activity of the region, although by no means are the only ones. These congresses have been organised by the Mexican Society for Biotechnology and Bioengineering (MSBB). This professional Society (the most important in the field in Mexico and probably unique in Latin America) has nearly 800 active members (60% of which are professionals and 40% are students) and has been active since 1982. Among other activities, MSBB publishes (in Spanish, quarterly) the journal BioTecnología, as well as books, and (every other year) a comprehensive database of all its members.

The MSBB sponsors awards to recognise outstanding work carried out in Mexico by young biotechnologists. One of the most important activities of MSBB is the organisation, every other year, of the Mexican Congress on Biotechnology and Bioengineering. The last version (number VII in the series) took place in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, Mexico in early September 1997, organised jointly with the 2nd International Symposium on Bioprocess Engineering. About 700 people attended the Symposium and Congress. 465 papers, representing 18 countries, were presented in the Symposium/Congress and extended abstracts were published in comprehensive Congress/Symposium Proceedings.

Excluding Mexican papers (347), a total of 97 papers were presented by Latin American authors, being Argentina, Cuba and Brazil, the countries with the most important contributions. These countries, not surprisingly, were the same as those identified in terms of publications and patents quoted in an international database. The next version of the Mexican congress (VIII in the series) is being organised jointly with the IV Latin American Congress on Biotechnology and Bioengineering, which will be held in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, September 12-18, 1999. About 600 papers were submitted, with an important contribution from Latin American countries. One of the aspects characterising these congresses has been, however, the very limited participation of industry.

Low international visibility of scientific production, even lower technological impact in terms of patents registered, together with a very limited participation of industry in biotechnology, characterise the situation of Latin America. Another characteristic, however, is the vast richness of academic biotechnology activity in Latin America.

We should devise ways to make Latin America biotechnology more internationally visible if we want a better appreciation of its work by the world community, and also to encourage a more industry-oriented work if we want this powerful technology to contribute in a more decisive way to the economic development of the region.

Enrique Galindo

President, Mexican Society of Biotechnology and Bioengineering


Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network
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