Andres Oppenheimer: Latin America needs a ‘Messi in science’

07/05/2014 12:00 PM

07/06/2014 12:07 PM

When the World Cup comes to an end and life returns to normal, Latin American countries should ask themselves a key question: Why can’t we produce a Messi, a Neymar or a James — arguably the world’s biggest soccer stars — in science or technology?

The question was raised recently by Inter-American Development Bank head Luis Alberto Moreno. Just as Latin America is producing many of the world’s best soccer players, the region should produce the next “Neymar in software” or the next “Messi in robotics,” Moreno argued at a conference in Brazil.

To do this, Latin American countries should apply to science the same passion and discipline they currently apply to sports, Moreno said. “Much like we have systems to produce the best soccer players on earth, we must create systems to develop our best brains,” he added.

Indeed, there are several parallels that can be drawn between success in soccer and science, technology and economic competitiveness.

First, much like in soccer, countries need a large pool of dedicated scientists to increase their chances of producing geniuses. And Latin America has a very small pool of scientists compared to the United States, Europe or Asia.

While Latin America has 560 scientific researchers per 1 million people, South Korea has 5,451 scientists and researchers per 1 million people, according to World Bank figures.

Second, much like in soccer, you need a family culture and a media environment that glorifies academic achievers. In China, Singapore and India, I have seen the national media devote as much attention to the winners of math Olympics as to their biggest sports stars. That does not happen in Latin America, or — for that matter — in the United States.

Third, and perhaps most important, countries need to accept and take advantage of globalization in science, much like they do in soccer.

As we are seeing in the World Cup, soccer is one of the world’s most globalized businesses. Virtually all Latin American national teams are made up of players who live abroad. That’s not only true of Brazil, Argentina and other soccer powers, whose stars have long played in top European leagues, but is also true of tiny Costa Rica or Chile.

Costa Rica’s national team, which advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in history, plays with goalie Keylor Navas (who plays in Spain), Giancarlo Gonzáles (United States), Oscar Duarte (Belgium), Cristian Gamboa (Norway), Junior Diaz (Germany), Celso Borges (Switzerland), Christian Bolaños (Denmark), Bryan Ruiz (Netherlands) and Joel Campbell (Greece). Only two of the team’s players play at home (although not for much longer, I would bet).

Globalization has helped small countries turn into serious competitors on the soccer field. In the current World Cup, Chile beat Spain 2-0, and Costa Rica won against Italy 1-0, and tied with England 0-0. Spain, England and Italy have already been eliminated by smaller rivals.

Although international exposure has been a blessing for Latin American soccer players, most of Latin America’s aspiring scientists and technologists stay home. While there are currently 820,000 Chinese students at U.S. universities, 71,000 from South Korea and 16,000 from Vietnam, there are only 14,000 from Mexico, 11,000 from Brazil, 6,600 from Colombia and 1,800 from Argentina, according to the U.S. Institute of International Education.

Chrysovalantis Vasilakis, a professor at the University of Warwick in Great Britain, told me that having great numbers of players abroad not only helps countries like Costa Rica have better national teams, but that “it also creates more incentives for younger people in Costa Rica to train and become better soccer players.”

Others, such as Center for Global Development fellow Charles Kenny, note that the emigration of talented people does not create a “brain drain,” but rather a “brain gain” for poorer countries.

“The Philippines, for example, is the developing world’s top exporter of trained nurses, but the result isn’t a dearth of medical care in the country,” Kenny writes at Businessweek.com. “The opposite is true: the lure of opportunities overseas means more people train as medical workers.”

My opinion: Instead of writing off or ignoring their scientists working abroad at the world’s best universities, Latin American countries should ask them to join their national scientific teams once every few years, much as Latin American players do every four years with their national soccer teams in the World Cup.

Having more players abroad in science and technology and recruiting them for specific tasks would significantly help Latin America produce a “Neimar in software,” or a “Messi in robotics.”

About Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer

@oppenheimera

Andres Oppenheimer is a syndicated columnist, and anchor of the TV Show "Oppenheimer Presenta." He is a member of the Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize.

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