Latin America: Research Can Drive Inclusion

By Judith Sutz and Rodrigo Arocena*

A woman points to a microscope while a man looks on.

Researchers from Uruguay’s Universidad de la República worked with partners from the World Health Organization on a project to prevent dengue fever in Salto, Uruguay. / PAHO / Flickr / Creative Commons

Research programs that address “invisible problems” in society – challenges that are generally overlooked – increase marginalized people’s inclusion far beyond solution of their immediate problems.  Problems lacking “agency” get little or no attention as competing demands for public funding crowd out resources for studying problems suffered by marginalized groups.  The solutions that arise from most research, moreover, are often too expensive and too elaborate for the less fortunate.

  • Many health problems denominated “neglected diseases” fall within what the World Health Organization calls “the 90/10 gap.” Some 90 percent of all the health research done around the world is devoted to the kind of health issues suffered by 10 percent of the world population, while the 90 percent get scant attention.

Money and political will are only part of the problem.  Research to identify a problem is in itself a challenge.  Our research indicates that some initial research is often all that is necessary to make an “invisible problem” explicit enough for policymakers to be forced to pay attention.

  • In Uruguay, a university research program in 2010 uncovered the link between rice workers’ health problems, including early death, and agrochemicals seeping into the water spread at plantations. The link was difficult to detect because their symptoms were all “normal” and had other common explanations, but an interdisciplinary team analyzed epidemiological data to confirm it, which prompted the Ministry of Public Health to take action.

A second challenge is developing new approaches to adapt existing solutions that work for the well off to sectors without resources.  Many times in the past, research stopped when a solution, albeit a costly one, was found – which has the consequence of excluding sectors of modest means.  But we know that new intellectual directions can break through even those technological barriers.

  • Once a vaccine was found for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a dangerous pathogen that causes meningitis and other life-threatening diseases in children under five, the threat disappeared from developed countries. But it remained dangerous elsewhere in the world due to the high cost of the vaccine.  Researchers at the University of Havana explored a new approach and designed a synthetic vaccine with a very low cost of production – which many scientists have hailed as an important success.  Argentinean scientists’ development of a probiotic yogurt – called Yogurito – has provided an affordable solution to provide lactobacilli that children need for digestive health.  These “frugal innovations” yield huge benefits.

An inclusive research agenda – promoted by universities and other thought leaders throughout Latin America – can transform knowledge into a tool for social inclusion if the knowledge produced and diffused in the innovation system is focused on the broadest possible segment of society.  A Copernican shift of research agendas worldwide is unlikely in the short term, but a commitment to human sustainable development will necessarily open spaces for broader agendas over time.  Democratization of access to higher education is one important driver in building “inclusive innovation systems.”  In both developed and underdeveloped societies, “developmental universities” can play a big role in solving problems and, importantly, enfranchising broader segments of the population.  Inequality in knowledge – forgetting people with forgotten problems – is a source of broader inequality the reversal of which will be of benefit to all.  Seeing victims of illness who lack the cures that wealthier citizens have as agents, rather than just as patients, is an important first step.

September 20, 2018

* Judith Sutz is Professor and Academic Coordinator of the University Research Council of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and Rodrigo Arocena was the University’s rector.  Their recent book is Developmental Universities in Inclusive Innovation Systems: Alternatives for Knowledge Democratization in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

The Critical Role of Universities in Latin America’s Future

By Rodrigo Arocena*

Tec de Monterrey

University students in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo Credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the latest commodity boom winds down, universities in Latin America can play a leading role in helping the region rebound from the resulting economic slowdown and build itself a more prosperous and equitable future.  The consequences of the boom for economic, political, and social conditions in the region are hotly (and rightly) contested.  But one inescapable conclusion is that inadequate attention was paid to raising societies’ knowledge and qualifications in the production of goods and services.  This matters greatly, because knowledge gaps and skill deficits lie at the heart of what underdevelopment means today.  If the focus in the decades following World War II was on addressing disparities in industrialization, one of the challenges now is over-specialization in productive activities with low added-value of knowledge and qualifications.  When such specialization persists, social and environmental problems are not manageable in the long term.  Differences concerning knowledge and higher education are also one of the main factors behind inequality, in both North and South.  In Latin America, traditionally considered the most unequal region in the world, inequality in recent years has been reduced in a handful of countries and so has poverty in almost all of them.  But such social progress may be jeopardized soon not only because of economic and political changes but also because of quite weak progress made expanding knowledge capabilities and applying them to collective problems.

Universities are at the heart of the solution.  In the knowledge-based and innovation-driven economies that emerged in the North during the last decades of the 20th century, universities obviously made a difference.  They were fundamental actors in the accelerated expansion of advanced education that is closely connected with that type of economy.  They generated new scientific and technological knowledge and often channeled its use into productive activities.  Even then, in the advanced economies of the North private sector firms perform a quite larger proportion of total research and development than universities.  Moreover, Northern universities are mainly oriented by market demand, meaning that actors who are already knowledge-strong obtain most of the benefits of what universities do, fostering what could be called knowledge-based inequality.  This is different from Latin America in several ways:

  • Public universities in Latin America are the main generators of new knowledge, which is why they should get priority when thinking about the future of the region’s development.
  • They are frequently well plugged into National Innovation Systems, the web of actors and institutions responsible for upgrading productivity through the generation and effective use of new knowledge.
  • They represent a continuation, although at a weakened level, of the tradition of the socially committed university forged by the Latin American University Reform Movement.

In any country of the world, knowledge democratization deserves high priority in every progressive agenda – and Latin American universities are, at least potentially, fundamental actors in this task.  Democratizing access and success in higher education, and thus trying to overcome an ancient social divide that stymies development, is key.  The task also means fostering research in all disciplines and applying it to collective problems, as has occurred with research and innovation oriented to social inclusion.  The Latin American ideal highlights merging the modern university’s two long-established missions – teaching and research – with a third one, called “extension,” which entails cooperation with external actors in knowledge generation, cultural creation, and problem-solving, with priority given to the situation of deprived sectors.  As motors for knowledge expansion, and thus for social inclusion, Latin American universities make an invaluable contribution to development and the deepening of democracy.

April 28, 2016

* Rodrigo Arocena served as Rector of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, from 2006 to 2014.