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Developing Countries Launch Space, Science Research To Chart Their Own Future

No longer content to let the U.S. and Europe dictate the pace and direction of innovation, countries around the world are funding their own R&D to solve their own problems.

The United States and Europe have long been the center of scientific and technological innovation, and the story of the day is how China may be usurping their place. However, these powerhouses may soon have many competitors. Developing countries from South America to Africa are spending billions to lead the next century in science and research, cultivating their own universities and researchers in hopes of one day competing with research institutions such as MIT and the National Science Foundation in the U.S. It's a far-off dream, but not necessarily an impossible one, at least for areas where developing countries have excelled in the past—agricultural and energy—and some where they have not, such as space.

"We in developing countries should not expect to follow the research model that led to the scientific enterprise of the United States and elsewhere," says José Goldemberg, a physical sciences professor at the University of Saõ Paulo, Brazil who has held Brazil's top government posts, in the journal Science. "Rather, we need to adapt and develop technologies appropriate to our local circumstances, help strengthen education, and expand our roles as advisers in both government and industry."

For the last century, global research has been primarily defined, funded, and carried out by developed countries in the West. Developing countries, meanwhile, often built unwieldy government bureaucracies pursuing science and technology fashionable in developed countries, while underfunding research appropriate in their own nations. As a result, universities and research centers became divorced from their countries' own needs and markets, and disproportionately linked to Europe or the United States.

That momentum is shifting, and a few initiatives such as Tanzania's Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology and Brazil's $2 billion Science Without Borders Program offer evidence of a new approach. Brazil, the world's 10th largest economy (and already 13th in scientific production), announced plans to invest $2 billion in 75,000 science and technology scholarships by the end of 2014, reports the journal Nature. The initiative, part of the government's Science Without Borders program, will send students to 238 foreign universities as a way to bolster the number of science and engineering graduates. "If we manage to send [just] 8,000 or 10,000 good students to have some experience abroad it's going to be a good thing for Brazil," said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, director of FAPESP, the São Paulo state research foundation.

In Africa, the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, brainchild of South Africa's post-apartheid leader, is slowly building a university system across Sub-Saharan Africa modeled on the Indian Institutes of Science and Technology (IITs) to foster native African research where it is needed most. The latest campus, funded by the Tanzanian government, is focused on bio-engineering, mathematics, computer science, water resources, environmental science, and energy engineering. Its new center in Arusha is expected to take masters and PhD students during the 2011 semester.

Among the most ambitious attempts is Mexico's new space program, the Agencia Espacial Mexicana, officially approved in April 2010 as part of a consortium of 45 countries sharing scientific, technological, and financial resources to explore space. However, Mexico has very grounded ambitions for its space program (ones which were borne out in the U.S. space program's aggressive pace of innovation and adoption of its advances by other fields): inventing new technologies for national problems and developing their own solutions to serve Mexican society.

[Image: Flickr user Erik Charlton]

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.