Cuba, Science and the Challenge of Development

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If there is a capital issue for the life of the country and for the prognosis of the development of Cuban society, it is science. This topic was discussed by a panel of experts who participated in the monthly debate space Último Jueves, organized by the magazine Temas.

At its usual headquarters of Fresa y Chocolate, located at 23 and 12, Vedado, on this occasion the panel included Professor Ernesto Altshuler from the University of Havana (UH); Olga Fernández Ríos, vice president of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba; Vilma Hidalgo, vice-rector of research at the University of Havana, Rolando Pérez, director of scientific policy of the Group of Biotechnological and Pharmaceutical Industries, BioCubaFarma, and professor Luis A. Montero, chairman of the UH Scientific Council.

Under the title “What do we do (and do not do) with science?”, the initial reflection was directed towards discussing what connection should exist between the search for knowledge, basic research, the creation of scientific value, the economy, and the society.

For Professor Altshuler, the analysis starts from an understanding that, on the one hand, science is motivated by curiosity, and on the other hand, motivated by its socio-economic impact. He also noted that it is important to not leave out fundamental aspects such as education and scientific dissemination. “Within the science of high socio-economic impact -which is what we in Cuba want to promote and catalyze-, I would say that there is science motivated by philanthropy, in which you produce a vaccine regardless of what you earn in order to save humanity, and another one motivated by profit,” said the expert.

In this regard, he stated that in the country, the relationship between these two types of science is unique: science motivated by curiosity, the only generator of originality because it is where unexpected things occur, often becomes a science motivated by profit as part of a current deformation that exists in Cuba, which has to do with the lack of an economic incentive. “As basic scientist, one tries to be as productive as possible in terms of bibliometric quantifiers and impact indexes ... one tries both to get involved with and visit institutions in other countries, save money and return to the homeland to work," explained the professor. "Often, without high salaries, we assume that guilt in the University by doing science of social interest in order to promote scientific dissemination, so that the teaching that we impart will ultimately result in students working in centers of the scientific pole. One cannot ignore that in the case of Cuba, these relations go through individual motivation, purchasing power, and profits,” he added.

The economist Vilma Hidalgo pointed out that science motivated by curiosity and scientific research also has a link with economics, “because in order to motivate that interest in science, so that it really has a level of importance, there should be programs that include the formation of human capital, and these in turn imply costs for the government budgets ... without this constituting ‘economism’”.

“The world shows that countries that have high incomes are those that can invest in human capital. In this sense, Cuba is a counter example, inasmuch as it has an intensive program in the formation of human capital propelled by a strong political will, commitment, and resolve to do it in this type of society,” maintained the specialist. In her view, this does not contradict the fact that at the international level, the countries that grow or have grown in a dynamic and sustained manner do so in terms of innovation. “This is the other side of the coin: science as a function of economic growth in order to generate wealth and distribute it in a more social way. That is the issue that Cuba has on the agenda: how to convert that investment -because we cannot see science as an expense-, that human potential, into a productive force that creates wealth and generates a virtuous circle in favor of sustainability,” said Hidalgo.

According to Olga Fernández Ríos, the first element to achieve in this relationship is to see science as part of the culture, as two inseparable elements. “It is also an activity that historically, in any scenario of development of humanity, has had a broad social vocation. We cannot separate science from society, either, or because it is generated in a specific social context, it responds to particular ends. This culture, this science, is what allows us to influence development and innovation. There is no social development without scientific development,” emphasized the doctor in Philosophical Sciences. But even in a country like Cuba, which has a scientific policy, there exists a series of difficulties and barriers to overcome so that science can impact not only the economy but all spheres of life, she said.

A concrete example was put forward by Rolando Pérez in emphasizing that innovation is present throughout the entire value chain of a product. "Innovation accumulates in each phase. What happens is that scientific research has a greater contribution in the initial stages of its development. This, in the case of biotechnology, translates into intellectual property, patents, and in high-tech companies. The problem is not to whom the property belongs but rather how the value of this property is used,” the panelist explained. He affirmed that there are currently ten thousand new medicines in development in the world. Of these, close to three quarters are potentially first in their class, which means that they are products whose mechanisms of action are totally novel, and no other products exist in the medical practice at their level.

He pointed out that the biotechnology industry is of high technological intensity, which refers to what is invested in Research and Development (R & D). It is estimated that 20% of the revenue of biotechnology companies is invested in R & D, twelve times more than in the manufacturing industry, he explained.

In Cuba, he said, there are currently around a hundred biopharmaceutical projects, of which 75% have intellectual property and 25% are potentially first in their class. “We are not at the same level of the developed world, but there is an important component of scientific research in the country, in the development of these new medicines developed by the industry.” The value or impact of scientific research in the development of new medicines is very high, the expert pointed out.

But what obstacles does the generation of knowledge face? What problems impede the path between basic science, applied science and innovation? What common problems do the different branches of basic or applied science have? What are the causes of the low rates of innovation?, inquired Professor Luis A. Montero of the panelists.

For the doctor of Physical Sciences Altshuler, the national industry has to reach a level of efficient economic organization to be “worthy”, and know how to take advantage of cutting-edge technological innovation. On the other hand, “we must motivate people economically at the individual level to innovate,” he said, referring to the purchasing power of researchers, which constantly weighs on the motivation to do science. “Today it is a contradiction,” he said.

“The dichotomy is evident: what the country has invested in training human potential - where Cuba is positioned among the high income countries from the point of view of educational level, the result of an educational and scientific policy - contrasts with the data when we examine the composition of our GDP in goods and services. In terms of the scientific activity, perhaps excluding biotechnology, we are badly positioned,” highlighted Vilma Hidalgo.

In that sense, she mentioned three essential elements to eliminate the contradiction. The first of them, to turn science into application and make it a function of economic development, which requires a culture of innovation in our business sectors that not the same as scientific potential, she said.

For the specialist, institutions are the second aspect. “Definitely, a dialogue is necessary between the generation of knowledge and the demand for that knowledge in the productive sector; there must be a connection, and for that ecosystem of innovation to exist, there must also be elements of that ecosystem, which are the institutions. Understand the role that companies, research centers, and universities have to play within this chain of knowledge. Institutions include the laws and regulations that have to be of good quality for that connection to exist. There must also be economic mechanisms, instruments ... a structure of incentives in order to motivate institutions and people,” she explained.

For the economist, “that connection is not achieved spontaneously. It is not true that because we are a country with a lot of human potential we are already in a position to turn that into innovation, there has to be an intentionality, and an institutional setting”.

In this regard, she commented that there are not yet sufficient funds disaggregated for this activity of innovation, and there cannot be innovation without investment in human capital. “Our economic mechanisms and our policy designs still have not managed to find a model that allows strengthening, beyond the few resources, the science, which coexists with multiple social demands within the budget. It is urgent to seek funding from the budget, international cooperation, from the business sector itself to be able to support these connections and science and innovation,” she stressed.

Dr. Olga Fernández Ríos commented on a recent investigation developed by the Academy, in its five sections, including the social sciences, on the state of science in the country, which showed several fissures: little use of networking and taking advantage of what each one produces, which keeps the disciplines separate despite the national programs that they have tried to develop; problems in the sphere of financing and that not only have to do with salary; an undervaluation of the theory and of the basic research as opposed to the applied science; the predominance of immediacy over strategy, with decisions that do not take into account a certain scientific trajectory; inadequate social visibility; and shortage of resources and organizational and bureaucratic obstacles were some of the gaps identified. In the case of the social sciences, she pointed out, there are also limitations of economistic points of view, “seeking direct and immediate application of a problem, without realizing that social problems are also permeated with great levels of subjectivity”. Likewise, spontaneity, secrecy, problems to access information, differences between territories, and the disproportion in scientific degrees that is exaggerated in some specialties, also affect this field.

Referring to the business sector, Rolando Pérez mentioned the absence of a financial strategy to capitalize on the knowledge, which in his opinion would be the first link to connect science with the economy. “We have taken some steps in the negotiation of intangible assets, but as a country, it is still a challenge to move forward.” He also cited the availability of foreign currency for financing, which should be equally competitive. “The national industry in general has more absorptive capacity for new technologies, and is not demanding of science; therefore, our science, to be a cause and not a consequence of development, has to pursue a promotional strategy,” added the specialist. “There is still a lack of interface structures between academia and industry, and it will not happen spontaneously. It has to be an intentional process, it is not necessary to copy other experiences but study them and develop our own,” he said.

In the opinion of Professor Montero, although in half a century Cuba has developed significant human potential compared to other science producing countries, economic structures and mechanisms of managing the economy are dysfunctional, and culture in that sense could not be correlated with the corresponding innovation culture; and that innovation is not completely understood as an essential part of development.

However, as a strength, Cuba has a scientific heritage resulting from state policy, with a domestic projection of science since 1959 based on the vision and the impetus of Fidel Castro, a policy which is reflected in positive human and social development indexes, Dr. Fernández Ríos said.

There were numerous questions from the audience, ranging from the relationship between science and religion, often seen as antagonistic, to the financing of science, its profitability and impact, and the non-implementation of relevant scientific results, which frequently gather dust and are not applied.

Another of the attendees' concerns was related to the migration of scientists and the human capital that has been created; and the lack of information about science, in a context in which the data referring to what is invested in this sector or in the environment is almost impossible to obtain, which distorts their coverage in the mass media.

“There is a tangible and pitiful reality. The most valuable strength of the Cuban science and at the same time its greatest weakness, is its people. It is the most important natural resource that this country possesses, and we are losing it. I'm not saying that there is lack of concern in the government, but that it is happening very quickly. It is a snake that bites its own tail,” he said.

Professor Montero stated that, according to research done in England on the situation of Cuban scientists outside of Cuba, while 20% of Cubans have a university level education, that index is 30% among immigrants. The drainage of scientific personnel is enormous. What is missing is a positive, proactive action,” he said.

Despite the existing barriers, Vilma Hidalgo stressed that in a country like Cuba, with medium incomes and social achievements, the relationship between science and the formation of human capital has been the result of political will. “If we had an economistic vision we could not have achieved anything. This does not mean that the asymmetries in the allocation of resources are not present. Cuba invests significant resources in education. However, the same does not happen in R & D. The national budget must assign greater resources to the development and innovation program,” she said. This is not just an economic issue, but a political one, she added. “If we have a country with low incomes, with extraordinary effort, and with political will, the logical thing to do is to use this human potential in favor of development.

Is there a way to overcome these problems?, was the final question of the debate.

According to Professor Altshuler, we must consider giving a space to emerging sectors, considering that today there are new social actors. For Dr. Fernández Ríos, the elimination of obstacles in the science sector is one of challenges that Cuban society faces and cannot be viewed in isolation. There is a process of change in the manner of constructing socialism, and in this process of change science has to be one of the main focuses of attention, in one of the sectors that will not be left to the market, he emphasized.

For Dr. Rolando Pérez, the issue of financing involves not only the resources that we can generate internally in the country. “Science, knowledge and intangible assets have to attract external capital. Today the country is making an extreme effort to increase foreign investment and we have yet to achieved the pace we need. We have to generate emerging sectors of high technology and the main component of this sector is scientific knowledge,” he said. No less important, Vilma Hidalgo considered, is to encourage motivation for science from an early age throughout all levels of education; and achieve a university-business model, which allows the academy to be within the chain of knowledge.