Argentina’s Scientists Return to their Roots

About 7,000 Argentine scientists and researchers work in other countries, but at least 310 of them have returned to Argentina since 2003, drawn by new economic and professional opportunities. These “brains,” who had emigrated since 1970, especially to the United States and Europe, were assisted by a program called Raices, an acronym that literally means “roots.” In Spanish, that abbreviation is also short for “network of Argentine researchers and scientists abroad.” The program is funded by Secyt, the country’s ministry of science and technology. “In the beginning our only task was to create a database of researchers who lived abroad, including what kind of work they were doing. Now we have a repatriation fund that we can use to pay for the return tickets of those who decide to come back,” notes Agueda Menvielle, who runs Raices. This year the organization has a budget of about $320,000.

 

Most Argentine specialists who have returned have joined Conicet, the national council of scientific and technical researchers. Conicet is an autonomous organization within the Argentine government. Its members are chosen by Argentina’s executive branch and by researchers, business organizations and universities.

 

Conicet was created in 1958 by Bernardo Houssay, one of Argentina’s three Nobel Prize winners. Houssay won the award in 1947 for his work in physiology and medicine. The second was Luis Leloir, who won the prize in 1970 for chemistry. Finally, Cesar Milstein was selected in 1984 for his work in physiology and medicine. This year, a group of Argentine companies in such areas as information technology, engineering and energy have signed an agreement with the government through which Secyt will try to spread word about jobs that are in greatest demand in sectors that are projected to grow fastest and where professionals are in short supply. Through this program, Argentine companies will be able to communicate their needs [to prospective employees] by using 124 Argentine delegations abroad.

 

IBM, a company that has signed up for both Secyt and Raices, needs to strengthen its ability to find new people who can work on developing new businesses. Massimo Macchiavello, workforce policy manager at IBM’s Governmental Programs division, notes, “For IBM, our knowledge and our concerns involve the IT market, which is growing a great deal in Argentina and generating new investments and new jobs. The IT industry is positioning the country as a point for launching exports of software and technology services. Our demand for employees has increased in recent years and the supply of these ‘human resources’ is more and more limited.”

 

The Argentine branch of IBM has begun an initiative known as “I Went Home.” Its goal is to attract talented Argentine professionals who currently live abroad. “Since the organization was created, they have received and analyzed more than 160 applications along with their respective interviews,” notes Macchiavello. “So far, two of those cases are very close to becoming a reality; these involve specialized talent in mainframe technology.” According to CESSI, the Argentine association of software and information service companies, the country’s software exports now exceed $300 million since 2001. Each year, the industry needs to employ 10,000 to 15,000 qualified employees but it is getting only one-third of that range at the moment.

 

“Companies are actors in the production process,” says Mario Albornoz, researcher at Conicet and a professor and director at Centro Redes (literally, Networks Center), a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching and employment. “[Companies] are the ones that personify the technological character of the country. Without innovative companies capable of developing and adopting the latest knowledge of technology, it is almost impossible for the country [Argentina] to develop a competitive economy that can achieve success in the international economic arena.”

 

Why do they come back?

 

According to Menvielle, “Coming back to Argentina is more attractive now because budgets for science and technology have increased. Conicet offers more job options, more space and higher budgets, and salaries are better among other factors.” In recent years, Argentina’s economy has grown at an average rate of 8% and during the first quarter of 2007, unemployment has been reduced to 9.8% of the population, two points below the same period of the previous year.

 

Nevertheless, Albornoz and Patricia Flores, who has a scholarship at Centro Redes, both educated in Argentina, feel that it is important to mention three important stages in the exodus of Argentines, based on research conducted at the center. Albornoz and Flores note that “the first stage was during the 1960s when the brain drain first arose as a result of high demand for educated people in developed countries. The second period was during the years of [Argentina’s] military dictatorships. The third period came in a context characterized by growth in the international mobility of people who are highly qualified. This phenomenon is associated with globalization.” According to Albornoz and Flores, the most recent wave of emigration came during the economic crisis that erupted in 2001.

 

Both Albornoz and Flores, differentiate various factors responsible for the departure of Argentine professionals. “Some of the external factors include strong demand in industrialized countries for professionals, scientists and technology experts; and growth in the supply of scholarships for carrying out postgraduate studies abroad. Among the internal factors are the economic and political crises [in Argentina], which [negatively] affected budgets as well as the infrastructure of institutions of science and higher education.”

 

According to the National Science Foundation, 67% of all Argentines who earned their doctorates in the U.S. intend to stay there. Almost 52% of them have firm plans to do so. Those percentages are a lot higher than the average among Latin Americans [expatriates in the U.S.] and they have trended higher over the course of the past fifteen years. Spain and Italy are the two other countries that take in the greatest numbers of Argentine professionals.

 

It is unrealistic to believe that all of the more than 7,000 [Argentine] scientists and researchers who live and work abroad can be repatriated. “All of them are nostalgic for Argentina and they are in close contact with our network, which enables them to collaborate,” notes Menvielle. “But the decision to return is an absolutely personal one. Finding them a job and paying for their ticket home does not mean making a decision [about returning permanently]. Those who have the most important jobs or the best salaries abroad are not going to return. Nor are those who have married and have children abroad.” Most likely to return are young people and retirees, and those who want their children to start their education in Argentina. Menvielle’s organization, Raices, also offers subsidies so that scientists who have not firmly decided to return can spend some period of time in Argentina and can spread their knowledge in the local community there. “They can also maintain their ties through conferences and seminars,” says Menvielle. Known as the Cesar Milstein Program [after the Nobel Laureate], it enables [Argentine] expatriates to stay for at least one month but no longer than six months.

 

From a business point of view, Macchiavello believes that economic reasons “are not the only priority among people who were obliged to emigrate during hard times and had to give up their assets, customs and style of life. It is important to note that in addition to providing them a chance to have a stable job with opportunities for growth and internal training, we are also contributing by bringing professionals back to their loved ones and to the daily life of their native country.”

 

The Raices program holds meetings where small technology companies can present their plans [to expatriate Argentines]. “For example, it’s for companies with researchers in the area of software and engineering,” says Menvielle.

 

The challenges

 

Argentine budgets for science and technology are growing each year. Between 2003 and 2007, total spending more than doubled from $240 million to $637 million. Nevertheless, Argentina is still far behind such neighbors as Brazil and Chile, which devote 0.90% of their Gross Domestic Product [to research in science and technology].

 

“The national plan is to reach a budget of 1% of Argentina’s GDP by 2010. We are growing. We used to have only 0.35% in recent years but this year we will reach 0.70% of the GDP,” says Menvielle, optimistically.

 

Albornoz, a philosopher, and Flores, a sociologist, say that when it comes to science and technology “the system needs to be strengthened and given a strategic orientation as well as greater financial resources. For example, less than 5% of all university spending is earmarked for investments in infrastructure and equipment. This causes a general obsolescence of facilities and equipment needed for doing research. Obviously, if this situation is not turned around, it will be impossible to have the sort of academic institutions that are suited for the high demands of today’s ‘knowledge society’. Albornoz adds that specialists must “stimulate the improvement in quality as well as strengthen their ties at every level: with companies, with associations, with local governments, and with other academic institutions both within and outside the country.”

 

Universities are an essential link in this chain because they produce new graduates each year. “You have to realize that these processes are long term and that professional training takes more than five years and even more time in the case of a doctorate,” notes Menvielle.

 

Professors and educators emerge from the ranks of corporate employees. IBM’s Macchiavello explains that “I Went Home” does more than merely promote the repatriation of the country’s labor force by providing a great deal of corporate experience. “In addition, it is about training educators who have high potential to train the professionals of the future.”

 

In Conicet, for example, most of the researchers and advanced students give classes at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Albornoz believes that universities such as UBA can improve their performance. He advises, “You have to provide universities with specific demands when it comes to training graduates, contributing to the development of knowledge and the enrichment of the country’s culture.”

 

This much is clear: Despite waves of emigrants and low budgets, Argentine scientists continue to enjoy a positive image around the globe. “They are very good,” asserts Menvielle. “In my experience, I can say that every research group in the world has at least one Argentine working in it, and they hold key positions.”

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