Photo source: U.S. Office of Naval Research Global, São Paulo
A recent publication by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD (R&E)) highlighted the need for the United States Department of Defense (DoD) to “stay abreast of emerging S&T (Science and Technology) around the world, leverage others’ investments, and seek out collaborations in areas where researchers need to remain at the leading edge.” The report makes clear that, in order to confront the challenge posed by revisionist powers (RPs) in Latin America, a far larger S&T engagement strategy that encompasses a “whole-of-government” approach must be undertaken.
The internal approach
The U.S. boasts several agencies and programs that focus specifically on S&T objectives, with variability across departments. For example, the Department of State’s (DoS) Jefferson Fellows program places members of the academic community in high-level positions within the department (particularly in the U.S. Agency for International Development) as “advisers on issues of foreign policy or international development.” The Embassy Fellows program also places U.S. scientists and engineers at numerous U.S. embassies and consulates in order to tackle pressing regional issues that could impact U.S. initiatives abroad. In addition, the Fulbright program provides grants to U.S. and non-U.S citizens to pursue research opportunities that range from student activities to in-depth collaborations at the professional level. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy (DoE) also support numerous programs that aim to increase international science collaboration across all S&T disciplines, whether by providing funding for U.S. researchers to collaborate with their international colleagues, or by facilitating international access to their facilities and resources.
However, some of the strongest efforts by the U.S. government to fund scientific research abroad are led by the Department of Defense, via their overseas defense science offices (DSOs)—namely, the Office of Naval Research Global (ONR Global), the international offices of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and the international divisions of the Army Futures Command (DEVCOM). Their organizational effectiveness can be attributed to their funding allocation authority, which allows them to sponsor international research directly; their sub-departments, which are capable of engaging with commercial entities in the countries of interest (for instance, through the Foreign Comparative Testing program); and their long-standing relationships with the armed forces of partner nations around the world. We have previously described how these DSOs function throughout Latin America; here, we reiterate our argument about the resources possessed by the U.S. government and its affiliated agencies.
Beyond funding increases, strengthening relationships across the U.S. government for international engagement in Latin America represents another effective tool to counter the influence of revisionist powers—i.e., illiberal regimes such as Russia and China. A successful example of this approach is a binational program that includes Brazilian academic and military organizations, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), academic institutions in the U.S., and resources from the DoD. This program, the Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT), is a CubeSat pathfinder program that seeks to investigate phenomena in the ionosphere capable of interfering with GPS communications, terrestrial space observation and overall human space exploration. This program was made possible through a series of agreements signed between the U.S. Air Force and the Brazilian Air Ministry in 1984, which therefore facilitated future funding from the DoD’s Coalition Warfare Program (CWP). Although the Research Development, Test and Evaluation agreement—the legally-binding accord that typically guides DoD funding for international collaborations of this magnitude—is still awaiting Brazilian congressional approval, SPORT nevertheless represents a clear example of how agencies across the U.S. government can work together to further strengthen ties with its Latin American allies and counter RP influence. Other such opportunities include support for DoS engagements, funding of research collaborations with researchers at non-DoD laboratories, and supporting national conferences that are of interest to entities across the U.S. government. With improved interagency coordination and collaboration, the U.S. is in a favorable position to increase its level of engagement with its Latin American allies.
The external approach
Latin America has invested significantly in its S&T infrastructure, with certain countries focusing more heavily in certain strategic areas (e.g., Chile in space sciences and polar research), while others (for example, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil) have taken a more diversified approach. The result of such investments is a cadre of world-class, highly trained, and innovation-oriented scientists that rival their peers from countries with more evolved research ecosystems. Academic institutions like the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC), and Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) are bastions of such research-intensiveness in the region. An additional result of national S&T investments is the 27 public research centers across Mexico operated by the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT, Mexico’s answer to the NSF in the U.S.). These centers each focus on a particular area of STEM (science, engineering, technology, and mathematics); at the CIMAT in Guanajuato, for instance, research focuses on mathematics, probability, statistics, and computer science. Other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, boast a robust research infrastructure across their public and private universities, which have received investments for research and development totaling over 20 billion reais (approximately USD $5 billion) since 2018, enabling the building of world-class facilities and the production of highly cited research. Between 2011 and 2019, Chile saw an annual five percent increase in its allocations for R&D, while Colombia has recently formed a Ministry of Science and Technology tasked with improving the overall quality of research conducted in the country.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic—coupled with lingering structural deficiencies—has resulted in significant setbacks to the region’s efforts to advance its research infrastructure. For example, Mexico has taken the unprecedented step of eliminating the public trust fund system that financed a significant portion of the country’s R&D programming. This decision—though robustly critiqued by many scientists concerned that the loss of R&D funds would seriously harm the state of research in the country—was made in circumstances of duress provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. Similarly, in Argentina, the years-long devaluation of the peso, coupled with the persistent economic recession that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, has inhibited the country’s ability to maintain sufficient levels of R&D funding. Brazil, meanwhile, has cut its R&D investments for the 2021 fiscal year by almost 50 percent compared to 2020 levels.
Currently, the combination of imperiled investment in Latin American research and the ongoing economic crisis represents an opportunity for the U.S. to pursue significant, mutually beneficial investments that could counter RP influence in the region. Chile and Argentina, for example, have exceptional access to the night sky that enables cutting-edge astronomical research. Countries like Brazil and Costa Rica also have plenty to offer in terms of high-performance computing, ocean sciences, and biotechnology. It is worth emphasizing that, by embarking on joint research ventures with our Latin American neighbors, the U.S. could reap the benefits of lowered costs of conducting international business, bolster its research priorities, diversify research efforts, encourage hemispheric research partnerships, and provide a model for research exchange that ultimately promotes goodwill and good governance.
Challenging the RP model of S&T cooperation
Examples abound of partnerships between U.S. government initiatives and Latin American researchers that have effectively demonstrated the potential of international collaboration to promote scientific and technological advancement. Aside from the productive efforts of the NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, since the founding of the DSO offices in Santiago, Chile (2002) and São Paulo, Brazil (2015), funding for conferences, research grants, and invitational travel in Latin America alone has reached into the tens of millions of U.S. dollars. One important stipulation of this funding is the encouragement to openly disseminate the scientific results (e.g., publications, conferences), while also allowing principal investigators to retain intellectual property rights. This American model of scientific research—with its emphasis on the equitable distribution of benefits to all involved parties—contrasts starkly with the model promulgated by RPs (which tend to heavily favor the interests of the RP at the expense of those of its international collaborators). Such unbalanced agreements often result from negotiations that occur on unequal terms, and ultimately place the host country and its citizens at a long-term disadvantage.
Chinese efforts at facilitating astronomical research in the Southern Cone are instructive with respect to the RP model of scientific collaboration. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ South America Center for Astronomy (CASSACA) was established at the Universidad de Chile in 2013, granting Chinese researchers access to telescopes across Chile at the expense of their Chilean counterparts. (Chinese researchers have been documented to be monopolizing telescope time designated for Chilean scholars, while China has refused to agree to share CASSACA’s financial and administrative burden with the Chilean government). Meanwhile, in Argentina, China’s establishment of a “Deep Space Tracking Station—designed to support the space operations of the People’s Liberation Army—has also come at a cost to Argentina researchers (who are guaranteed access to only ten percent of the station’s telescope time), while simultaneously sparking international criticism over a lack of transparency and the emergence of serious concerns regarding the station’s threat to Argentine sovereignty. Likewise, with respect to the recent signing of the space cooperation agreement between Russia and Argentina, considering that the agreement was ratified during Russia’s overt campaign of vaccine diplomacy in Argentina, there is ample reason to view Russia’s motives—and the project’s promised benefits for Argentina—with suspicion.
It is critical, therefore, for the U.S. to highlight the stark differences in the processes of scientific cooperation that exist between democratic nations and ascendant RPs. Unlike contemporaneous agreements with RPs, existing and forthcoming joint scientific ventures between Latin American nations and the U.S. are based on transparent, equitable transactions that benefit both parties. The U.S. cannot relinquish its S&T leadership role to RPs that seek to exploit regional vulnerabilities and promote an autocratic model of governance based on a lack of free and fair trading practices and the promotion of anti-democratic values. Therefore, the U.S. must invest wisely and strategically, bearing in mind the eventual global return on investment that an expanded S&T lead over the RPs would represent.
Dr. Diogenes Placencia is a Science Director for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, São Paulo.
Dr. Paul A. Sundaram is a Science Director for the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, São Paulo.
Stephanie dos Santos is an Administrative Assistant at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, São Paulo.