Ibero-American Perspectives

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To introduce a Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking perspective on science, technology, and ethics is difficult and somewhat artificial. From the beginning it must be acknowledged that Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe together with the more than twenty Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries that can be identified in the Americas compose a heterogeneous group. In many respects differences outweigh similarities. Nevertheless, the differences are perhaps no greater than those present in other large-scale linguistic or cultural perspectives such as are represented by Africa, China, or India. Provided that this introduction is not taken as a substitute for more particular assessments of the situations in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and Venezuela (to mention only a dozen of the most populous countries), it may serve to highlight some modest commonalities that do in fact exist.


Understanding relations between science, technology, and ethics in the Ibero-American countries requires some appreciation of the historical relations between Spain and Portugal on the Iberian peninsula and those countries in the Americas that emerged from Iberian colonization. The sixteenth and seventeenth century Iberian colonizations of the Americas brought with them ideals of the Counter Reformation rather than the ideals of liberalism the practice of exclusion that were more characteristic of English colonialism. From the very beginning, there was thus little enthusiasm for science and technology in themselves, and even considerable skepticism regarding their benefits. The local cultures that emerged in the eighteenth century and then sought independence in the nineteenth century adopted a sense of being on the periphery that was reinforced, especially in Spain, by its sense of separation from Europe and then the loss of its last major possessions to the United States in Spanish-American War of 1898.

Subsequent early twentieth century attempts by Latin American countries to modernize and become players in international affairs had to struggle with the increasing influence of the United States and continuing marginalization in the mother countries of Spain and Portugal. Virtually all Ibero-American countries were also afflicted until the 1970s with civil wars and economic difficulties. The last decades of the twentieth century were then characterized by attempts to recover cultural roots and establish regional identities, often through ambitious political projects of international cooperation and development such as the Alliance for Progress (which was proposed by American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy [1917–1963] in 1961 but petered out by the late 1960s), or through more modest academic projects, including the formation of regional networks promoting scientific education and research. The failures of major development programs to achieve their stated goals, and the difficulties that emerging cadres of scientists and engineers had in securing adequate employment in their home countries, nevertheless sponsored an ongoing sense of skepticism and dissatisfaction with scientific and technological initiatives.

Against such a background it is thus appropriate to review in slightly more detail various indicators concerning the role of science and technology in various Ibero-American situations. This will be followed by an assessment of social and academic attitudes toward science and technology, including those manifested in Latin American social thought. Finally it will be appropriate to comment on the reception and development of science, technology, and society (STS) studies in the region, and to review recent initiatives to promote a proper regional reflection on the social meaning of science and technology.

Science and Technology in Ibero-American Countries

Until the latter decades of the twentieth century, the role of scientific research and technological development (R&D) in Ibero-American countries can be encapsulated in a well-known phrase from Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864–1936): "¡Qué inventen ellos!" (Let others invent!). Unamuno was one of the leading members of the "Generation of 1898," the year that Spain lost the last of its major colonies, and a philosopher who struggled to come to a new self-understanding of what it meant to be Spanish. Unamuno's manifesto was to make a virtue of history: Spain should not compete with others in science and technology, but seek a non-technical identity in its cultural traditions. Although Unamuno himself was adamantly opposed to the traditionalists who made up the base for Francisco Franco (1892–1975) during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the fascist triumph can be interpreted as an initial victory for such an ideology. Only in the 1950s did this victory evolve into a kind of technocratic development that, after Franco's death in 1975, could serve as a foundation for major scientific and technological change. (Changes of a comparable character took place in Portugal after the death of António de Oliveira Salazar [1889–1970].)

The increasing social and political belief in a link between economic development and technoscience that characterized the last half of the Franco regime was also reflected in Latin America in emerging public policies for the promotion of R&D. It was especially at the exhaustion of the development model known as "industrialization by import substitution" during the 1980s, when a large number of national science and technology organizations were created, that many governments began to recognize a need to support their science and technology systems. The loss of a dream of self-sufficiency in the midst of globalization was coincident with the diffusion of new discussions of innovation. The new discourse has nevertheless brought its own worries, especially a tendency to subsume science policies under economic policies—a view that at the beginning of the twenty-first century serves as the guiding principle for the reorganization of R&D in many Latin American countries. In such a context, economics trumps science—as well as ethics.

Yet good intentions have seldom equaled actions. In the decade of the 2000s, it has remained the case that only around 0.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is allocated to R&D in most Latin American countries. Because there is little privately supported higher education, universities absorb the major portion of public R&D funding; there is no significant demand for R&D in the private sector. In spite of public declarations and formal documents, Unamuno's spirit remains strong. Indeed, with regard to science and technology, the inequality of Latin America in relation to other regions is even more pronounced than the much better known economic inequalities. This is well documented by a wide variety of indicators: funding, active researchers, science students, scientific publications, patents, and more.

Relevant data is available on the Ibero-American and Inter-American Network on Science and Technology Indicators Website (www.ricyt.org), as well at regular United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publications on the state of science and technology throughout the world. For example, while in developed countries about fifty percent of the student-age population pursues some level of higher education, in Latin American this number is below twenty percent. This is after a doubling of university graduates during the 1990s. From this scarce percentage, in 1997 only eleven percent were graduates in mathematics, science, or engineering. It is against this scarcity and imbalance that the efforts of research groups in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela must be appraised.

A certain imbalance among these countries must also be recognized. Over seventy percent of Latin American scientific researchers are concentrated in three countries: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. While some countries, such as Brazil and Cuba, are making a strong economic and political effort to promote R&D, others, such as Peru and El Salvador, were not even investing
0.1 percent of their GDP in science and technology as of the late 1990s. The situation in Spain and Portugal is also distinctive. Particularly since joining the European Union, Spain and Portugal have worked to reach European standards with regard to science, technology, and innovation indicators. Although they have yet to match the general European standards, especially in relation to their weak public funding and poor investment from the private sector, their indicators are significantly better than those of most Latin American countries. For example, publications from Spain included in the Science Citation Index (around 25,000 in year 2000) were almost as great as those from all of Latin America (around 28,000 in the same year)—but still far below a single North American country such as Canada (with 38,000 in 2000).

Clearly much work remains to raise the profile of science and technology in all the Ibero-American countries. Mere awareness of the problem is not enough. Instead, decisive steps are required from many social actors in order to promote science and technology and to develop their economic potential. At some level, such work will rest on an ethical assessment of the value of science and technology that does not ignore their potential dangers. Indeed, the issues concerning relationships between science, technology, and development have been themes of critical social reflection in Latin America—a tradition of reflection that is in the process of being modified by the regional emergence of STS studies.

Latin American Social Thought

Relevant in the present context is the evolution of a distinctive school of Latin American social thought on science and technology, especially as reflected in a number of thinkers concerned with both the foundations of science and regional political change. Although the most significant of these were born and based in Argentina, they had a much wider influence during the 1970s and since. What follows is a brief review of the work of three representatives of this school.

OSCAR VARSAVSKY. Oscar Varsavsky (1920–1976) was an Argentinean mathematician and physicist who was also one of the most politically engaged scientists of his generation. He developed a criticism of what he called "scientism," particularly in Latin America: that is, the ideological attitude often assumed in science in which scientists focus their professional interest on their own careers, adopting them to the patterns operative in leading foreign scientific centers, thus developing an external dependence while ignoring immediate social needs and the political meanings of their work. According to Varsavsky, it is a prevailing obsession for quantitative methods and an illusion of freedom in research that obscures the scientists' dependency on capitalist economic forces and market laws.

Adopting a relativist viewpoint, Varsavsky held that there is more than one way to do science and technology. There are different styles in science and technology, linked to different national projects and eventually to different social values. Varsavsky thus developed a normative criticism of contemporary science, rejecting the linear model of innovation as dependent on basic science—a science policy ideology that became very influential in Latin America during the 1970s. In a more positive vein, Varsavsky argued for a new style in science and technology in Latin America: a science for the people or, better, a science from the people, providing the region with a certain scientific and technological autonomy, and linked to a style of society that he called socialismo nacional creativo (creative national socialism).

JORGE SÁBATO. Jorge Alberto Sábato (1924–1983) was an Argentinean metallurgist and self-educated physicist who had an important role as the promoter of research in the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission. He was also influential in the creation of the Physics Institute in Bariloche, Argentina. A sharp and lucid thinker, Sábato had a strong influence from the 1960s concerning the way to conceptualize scientific and technological development in Latin America. His most widely cited contribution is his 1968 paper "La ciencia y la tecnología en el desarrollo de América Latina" (Science and technology in the development of Latin America), coauthored with Natalio Botana. In this paper he introduces the metaphor of the triangle of scientific and technological development, whose three vertices are government, the production sector, and the knowledge-generation sector. This has come to be known as the "Sábato triangle," which he used as a heuristic tool for analyzing problems posed by the lack of innovation in the periphery.

According to Sábato, it is the weak connections between those three vertices, in contrast to the situation in developed countries where they constitute a system, that explains the weakness of innovation capacities in Latin America and its technological dependency. These ideas were contrary to the then-prevalent linear model of innovation, and clearly anticipated forthcoming theories on systems of innovation.

AMÍLCAR HERRERA. Amílcar Herrera (1920–1995) was an Argentinean geologist and eldest, but also longest-lived, of the three the thinkers under review. His main book, América Latina: Ciencia y tecnología en eldesarrollo de la sociedad (1970), an edited volume that included Sábato's 1968 paper, outlines his primary intellectual orientation: developing a Latin American view about the problems of underdevelopment and their relation to science and technology. Immediately afterward, his Ciencia, tecnología y desarrollo social: ciencia y política en América Latina (Science, technology, and social development: science and politics in Latin America, 1971), critically analyzed the social and historical context of science and science policy in the Latin American region. It is in this second volume that Herrera, adopting a structural and contextual approach, introduced a now widely used distinction between explicit and implicit science policies. An explicit science policy is the one that can be found in standard formal documents, a modernizing and progressive policy in accordance to universal ideals. The implicit science policy is the one really at work, characteristically at the service of the ruling social classes.

Herrera also criticized the use of conventional socioeconomic indicators for development in Latin America, and argued in favor of an orientation of the scientific and technological capacities toward proper regional problems such as those of undernourishment, misery, and ignorance. Finally, shortly before his death, his Las nuevas tecnologías y el futuro de América Latina: Riesgo y oportunidad (New technologies and the future of Latin America: risk and chance, 1994) proposed a strategy for scientific and technological development appropriate to the Latin American countries and sensitive to the type of society to be pursued.

Of course, none of these authors considered himself a STS scholar. They were simply critical scientists interested in the social realities of Latin America, as connected to science, technology, and innovation, and as such they anticipated some of the ideas that could subsequently find a home in STS scholarship. Indeed, they created a social thought tradition that has molded the later reception of STS authors and ideas.

Moreover, they are not alone in the movement of Latin American social thought on science and technology. Others who deserve mention are the Chilean Fernando Fajnzylber (who focused his work in the study of the relationship between economic development and inequity) and the Venezuelan Marcel Roche (founder of the journal Interciencia and promoter of science studies in his country). Still others have also made lively contributions to STS research, in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Uruguay.

The tradition of Latin American social thought was not, however, particularly influential in promoting an ethical assessment of science and technology in relation to developments in either Spain or Portugal. In Spain one primary influence was the work of José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) who, as a member of the "Generation of 1927" (the generation associated with the second Republic), criticized the views of Unamuno. Ortega's Meditación de la técnica (1939) provided a positive but critical analysis of technology as central to human life. Another influential philosopher of Spanish origin, Juan David García Bacca (1901–1992), who spent most of his adult life in Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela, adopted an even more positivist perspective that virtually ignored any negative political implications of scientific and technological progress. More recently the critical phenomenological analyses of the Venezuelan Ernesto Mayz Vallenilla on the tendencies of technology to be transformed into what he terms a meta-technology have also had some limited influence.

STS in Ibero-American Countries

It is within the previously noted contexts that STS studies—as the basic framework within which discussions of science, technology, and ethics have been manifest—have emerged in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. Before turning to this emergence, however, it is necessary to provide some commentary on the underlying interpretation of science studies in these countries.

In Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries there is a certain ambiguity concerning how to interpret and translate the English acronym "STS." Some translate it as "science and technology studies" (estudios sobre ciencia y tecnología); others take it to stand for "science, technology, and society" (ciencia, tecnología, y sociedad). The well-known distinction between the two STS subcultures—an academic subculture focused on the study of technoscientific change as a social process, and the social factors that might be rendered responsible for shaping such a change, versus an activist subculture focused on the social and environmental effects of technoscientific products, upon their educational, ethical, or political aspects—is repeated in the Ibero-American perspective. But this repetition is a weak one, and the fact is that in Latin America especially the two approaches have tended to merge even when the interpretation of STS as "ciencia, tecnología, and sociedad" predominates.

The STS subcultures, whether disciplinary or activist, originated in the late 1960s and the early 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom, and from there were transferred to other industrialized countries mostly in continental Europe. It was during the 1980s and 1990s that STS penetrated the academic and educational institutions of more peripheral European countries, such as Spain or Portugal, and other peripheral regions, such as Latin America. In Spain, Colombia, and Cuba, it was only in the late 1980s that such things as social constructivism, technology assessment, gender issues in scientific research, along with new trends in science education, began to be pursued. The academic and institutional consolidation of STS, however, did not reach the region until the 1990s, and even then in a slow and hesitant way that has continued into the twenty-first century.

There are nevertheless some exceptions worth mentioning, both in research and education. With regard to research, a number of groups linked to universities have had some important results. Examples include

  • the STS postgraduate program and research group organized by José Sanmartín in the University of Valencia, which started the first formal STS education program in Spain in the 1980s;
  • the group led by Mario Albornoz at the Ibero-American Science and Technology Indicators Network (RICYT) in Buenos Aires, which gathers scholars from many Latin American countries;
  • the Hebe Vessuri group at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) in Caracas, with its tradition of collaboration with UNESCO;
  • the team arranged by Javier Echeverría and Emilio Mun˜oz at the STS Department, Spanish Research Council, Madrid;
  • the scholars gathering around Renato Dagnino in the University of Campinas, near Sao Paulo in Brazil;
  • the research group linked to Maria Eduarda Gonçalves and José Luís Garcia at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon;
  • the network of Jorge Nún˜ez, Director of Postgraduate Studies, Havana University, Cuba;
  • the research group led by León Olivé and Rosaura Ruiz in the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), hosting many editing and teaching STS activities.

Not included in this list are other important researchers who have made no less significant contributions in countries such as Colombia (Mauricio Nieto, Carlos Osorio) and Uruguay (Judith Sutz, Rodrigo Arocena).

With regard to education, STS has been making a strong impact on the Spanish secondary school system and on higher education in Cuba since the mid-1990s. More modest impacts are to be found in Mexican secondary education, where a certain implementation of STS content has taken place in natural sciences subjects and is underway in technological education. There are also a number of particular universities where STS research groups have flourished when linked to diverse graduate or postgraduate programs (see above). However, these are rather exceptions to the general rule of slow consolidation of a regional STS scholarship.

The case of Cuba is worth special note. After the end of the Cold War, reforms in Cuba began also to affect education. Under the title of "Social problems of science and technology," the content of STS experienced an impressive expansion in the Cuban system of higher education. STS largely replaced the previously obligatory study of Marxism, and so is now taught as part of practically all university degrees. It constitutes a compulsory examination for Ph.D. candidates and for any scholar applying for promotion within the faculty system.

Discourse Transfer Issues

STS and related discussions of science, technology, and ethics can be understood as cultural constructs. Such discourses arose initially in more economically and technologically developed countries in response to certain social demands. These demands included calls for alterations in the academic image of science, desires to increase scientific literacy among non-scientist citizens, needs for reforms in science education, political efforts to extend public control over technological change, concerns for social accountability related to science and technology policies, and more. Discussions of the professional ethical responsibilities of scientists and engineers and efforts to enhance the responsible conduct of scientific research were especially associated with the intensified interactions between science, technology, economics, and politics. The transfer of such discourses to the more peripheral Ibero-American countries, despite the differences that exist among them, has confronted a number of common problems.

First, an obvious but important fact is that many of the social demands out of which STS originally emerged in the Anglo-American center of scientific and technological advance in the 1960s did not exist until much more recently in Spain, Portugal, or Latin America. With no significant interest in the classic sociology of science, one should not expect there to be much interest in the sociology of scientific knowledge and related analyses of the academic status of science. Where large sections of the population are illiterate, it is unlikely that there will be desires to increase scientific literacy. Without democracy, it would be nonsensical to argue for an extension of democracy into the regulation of science and technology.

Second, the constitution of a critical mass of STS scholars in every country requires an established research infrastructure in the natural and social sciences. It depends on reasonable input and output indicators in those fields, as well as institutional structures for facilitating interdisciplinary research. Unfortunately, in Ibero-American countries there has traditionally been an important lack in both respects. At the same time, the creation of small national groups of STS scholars, who could be put together and form a critical mass in the region as a whole, has faced serious difficulties because of severe restrictions on academic support and communication.

Finally, third, there has been an excessive peripheral focusing on the English-speaking center. Spanish STS scholars, for example, tend to read STS literature in English, produced by American, British, Dutch, or French authors. They thus largely ignore what their cultural neighbors are doing in Colombia, Venezuela, or even Portugal.

Fortunately, the situation in Ibero-American countries is changing. The effort of a number of international governmental organizations, such as UNESCO, the Programa Iberoamericano de Ciencia y Tecnología para el Desarrollo (CYTED), and the Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos (OEI), as well as some national science teachers associations (such as those in Chile or the Brazil), are promoting research and breaking down communication barriers. Traditionally isolated local universities and research centers are increasingly cooperating to promote STS throughout the region. This will undoubtedly stimulate discussions of science, technology, and ethics, as well.

Recent Initiatives

Two significant recent examples of recent initiatives are the creation of an Ibero-American STS Thematic Network and the promotion of a number of university Science, Technology, Society, and Innovation (STS&I) chairs, in both cases as initiatives of the OEI—an inter-governmental organization that depends on the ministries of education of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries, plus Spain and Portugal.

The Ibero-American STS Thematic Network gathers STS scholars from some fifteen countries in the region, focusing their work around typical STS subjects such as science and gender, social impact indicators for R&D activities, or ethical aspects of new technologies. The central goal of this network is to stimulate an endogenous STS scholarship in the Ibero-American region, while promoting a constructive dialogue with the international forefront in the field. Among the tools that are already in use are the support of STS publications (in Spanish and Portuguese), electronic diffusion and distance learning courses, and the sponsoring of STS conferences and meetings in the region (see http://www.oei.es/cts.htm).

The network draws applications to the fields of science education, communication, and management. For example, in the field of science and technology management, the OEI has made use of network resources and included a STS orientation in Science Administration courses that have been organized since 1998. These courses are addressed to young high officials of the Latin American ministries of science (or whatever ministry holds science policy competencies) as well as national organizations responsible for science policy in the region. The inclusion of STS content in these courses, comprising fifteen to thirty percent of the lecture time, has been well received.

As to the research guidelines of this initiative, its critical focus has been the urgent need to promote economic development in the region and a central place for science and technology in such a process. According to this view and reflecting the critical tradition of Latin American thought, a social critique of science should be compatible with the encouragement of science and science policies. In more practical terms, policy, ethics, and history-based applied analyses, often assuming the form of interdisciplinary studies, have taken precedence over theory-oriented and disciplinary stances. "Science, technology, and society" has dominated over "science and technology studies."

The creation of STS+I Chairs in Ibero-America exhibits similar tendencies. STS+I chairs are an OEI initiative in collaboration with national science and technology agencies, and in some cases ministries of education. Basically, the idea underlying STS+I Chairs is to constitute networks of universities (both public and private) that, duly supported by other public organizations, will be able to strengthen particular lines or research and education (linked to STS and innovation issues), thus making better use of the potentialities of participant institutions. To date, chairs have been established in El Salvador (September 2000), Argentina-Uruguay (April 2001), Colombia (September 2001), Cuba (November 2001), Costa Rica (July 2002), Panama (April 2003), Mexico (May 2003), and Peru (June 2003).

The organizational model is different in each case, respecting each country's characteristics (with a strong or weak national differentiation, with one or another higher education system, etc.). But basically a STS+I chair is constituted by a named professorship with supplementary funds to support education and research activities. What unifies the various STS+I chairs is the attempt to promote a dialogue between the scientific and humanistic cultures, as well as the social projection of scientific knowledge generated in the university by means of teaching seminars and other initiatives of knowledge diffusion, as well as the support of research. The general idea is the creation of a common working ground for higher education and research institutions, a common space conceived for sharing and rationalizing human and material resources. Not only banks and corporations, but also education and research institutions, need to establish alliances and common projects in order to be competitive and make an optimal use of their potentialities.

STS+I Studies

The STS+I acronym emphasizes the particular perspective in which STS studies are being developed in the Ibero-American region, receiving international STS scholarship and adapting it to the tradition of critical thought on science and public policy represented by Varsavsky, Sábato, and Herrera. The STS+I perspective also tries to cope with the two major challenges of the so-called knowledge society, as seen from a regional perspective: the appropriation of such knowledge by the production sector, and its appropriation by the civil society.

A pragmatic approach to the region's sensibilities is perhaps the best way to characterize these fields and their interrelation in the present geographic and cultural context. On the one hand, in the STS field, through the study of academic themes such as science and gender, science education, or engineering ethics, the goal is to achieve an understanding of the relationships between science and technology in their social context in order to promote social interests for scientific issues, scientific and technological literacy, and public participation in public policies related to science and technology. On the other hand, in the innovation field, through the study of themes such as university-corporation relationships, national systems of innovation, and technological management, the goal is to understand institutional and socioeconomic conditions underlying the phenomenon of innovation in order to support innovation and the creation of innovation systems in countries of the region. The great challenge and novelty of the STS+I approach has been the combination of these lines of work in a common framework of interdisciplinary reflection, with a strong practical or policy orientation.

"Society" and "innovation" are the key terms of the so-called "Declaration of Santo Domingo," from a regional summit on science and technology held in March 1999 as a preparatory meeting of the World Congress on Science, arranged by UNESCO and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and held in Budapest in June-July 1999. It is not by chance that these two points were also emphasized in the final declaration of the Third Ibero-American Course for Science and Technology Administrators, held also in March 1999 in Bogota, Colombia, which gathered participants from twelve Latin American countries.

In fact, in the contemporary world, and especially in Latin America, these two goals—to open science and technology systems to social sensitivities and public participation, and to reorient these systems toward economic development—are not only compatible but mutually interdependent. Technological innovation, the process that begins with the organized creation of an idea and concludes with the social diffusion of its material realization, requires social support and participation for its feasibility and consolidation. Just as a country with half its population in poverty cannot pretend to be internationally competitive or to enjoy sustainable economic development, the consolidation of such growth and competitiveness requires public interest, democratic support, and confidence in institutions among all the citizens. Moreover, from the perspective of the periphery, technological innovation is necessary for national economic competitiveness and also for the creation of the material conditions that make possible, among other things, the modernization of political and administrative structures and the generation of a participatory culture.


Although only the author is responsible of any omissions or mistakes, this article draws on a number of experiences and personal communications involving the STS Network of the OEI. Due credit must be given to the Network scholars who provided many clues and much information. Particularly helpful have been Elsa Beatriz Acevedo (Colombia), Rodrigo Arocena (Uruguay), Renato Dagnino (Brazil), José Luis Luján (Spain), Jorge Nún˜ez (Cuba), and Sara Rietti (Argentina).



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