OPINION article

Front. Res. Metr. Anal. | doi: 10.3389/frma.2021.657120

Call to action: Supporting Latin American early career researchers on the quest for sustainable development in the region Provisionally accepted The final, formatted version of the article will be published soon. Notify me

  • 1Department of Research in Virology and Biotechnology, Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies, Panama
  • 2Virology Program, Institute of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Universidad de Chile, Chile
  • 3CiSGER, Facultad de Ingeniería, Universidad del Desarrollo, Chile
  • 4Mesoscale Chemical Systems, University of Twente, Netherlands
  • 5Center for Anthropology, Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, Venezuela
  • 6Facultad de Economía y Negocios, Universidad Andrés Bello., Chile
  • 7President National Association of Postgraduate Researchers of Chile, Chile
  • 8Department of Neurology, University of California-Davis, United States
  • 9MIND Institute, University of California-Davis, United States

Science diplomacy could be broadly defined as scientific interactions to tackle common concerns (science in diplomacy). These collaborations could result in positive interaction between countries (science for diplomacy) or use diplomatic interactions to increase scientific knowledge and collaboration between countries (diplomacy for science). Besides their diversity, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) countries have some general features that could facilitate the use of science diplomacy to strengthen their interactions for technological development of the region (FECYT 2017; Gual Soler 2020). For that, each component of the scientific system in the region needs to be analyzed, creating the basis to suggest recommendations as part of the regional science diplomacy and science policy strategies. Early and mid-career researchers - ECRs, are crucial in the scientific system and create the future scientific capacity of the region. Thus, the design of science diplomacy and science-strengthening policies is critical to inform national and regional policymakers with unified and customized recommendations to improve the systems that host these ECRs.
ECRs are broadly defined as researchers under 35 years old, that obtained their highest degree within the last 5-10 years, and/or do not yet have a permanent position (Bazeley 2003). In the LAC context, we expand this definition (ECRs-LAC) to up to 10 years post-Ph.D., and younger than 45 years old, because, compared to other regions, ECRs-LAC’s careers begin later (Kreimer and Vessuri 2018; “Education at a Glance” n.d.) due to older age at beginning of doctorate, delayed graduation rates, educational structures and differences in opportunities. These factors impact the international competitiveness of ECRs-LAC, and the scientific attractivity of the region. ECRs-LAC’s issues are a direct concern to researchers and institutions, and to the development strategies of LAC countries. A supportive system that enables a sustainable research career, provides an important scaffold for knowledge and technological development in the local/regional contexts.
LAC countries have diverse levels of scientific development, but overall, the percentage of GDP allocated to research, technology and innovation is less than 1% of GDP (up to 10 times lower than most high-income countries) and has been decreasing in recent years, leaving research systems in a noncompetitive position (IDB 2010; RICYT 2019; Bolaños-Villegas et al. 2020). Less opportunities for scientific education, training and academic positions are proposed to contribute to the high mobility of doctoral students and ECRs out of the region (Lemarchand 2015). ECRs-LAC can be split into three mobility groups based on their professional trajectories: 1) those that pursued their professional development in their home country, 2) those that undertook part of their training abroad and then returned to their home country; and 3) those that left their home country to pursue a career and remained abroad (scientific diaspora) (Pinto-Baleisan & Delage, 2017). These career paths could inherently influence access to opportunities. Are LAC scientific systems able to compete in current knowledge production dynamics and to respond to the motivations of ECRs-LAC mobility?
Some LAC countries have their own renowned doctoral programs (i.e., Brazil, Mexico, Chile, or Argentina) allowing many ECRs to pursue their professional development at home (mobility group 1) (Lemarchand 2015) as well as attract PhD students from other LAC countries. In recent decades, many LAC governments have invested in fellowship programs which allow ECRs to undergo specialized training outside the region (Iesalc 2019). This has created unprecedented academic exchange and mobility. Such programs have had significant impact in countries without scientific doctoral programs. But without parallel local investment, newly-trained ECRs (mobility group 2) return to scientific systems lacking sufficient infrastructure and funding agencies to support their reinsertion and fully harness their training (Ramírez 2019) (Table 1). The factors influencing ECRs-LAC mobility have not been fully harnessed to inform policies that better support their career trajectories for both personal, national, and regional benefit (Dalton 2008). Some efforts have addressed the effect of internationalization of LAC scholars through reinsertion programs which facilitate employment upon returning home . Civic organizations have contributed presenting evidence and proposing new policies impacting ECRs-LAC . Independent and governmental agency-supported networks of LAC researchers create additional mechanisms of communication between researchers in the region and the diaspora (Gaillard Anne-Marie Gaillard Jacques 2014) (Table 1). ECR organizations like the Global Young Academy (GYA), The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) Young Affiliates Network (TWAS-TYAN), and National Young Academies (NYAs) continue to create new opportunities for science diplomacy for LAC, at the regional and global level.
Through this opinion we encourage reflection and dialogue on the issues ECRs-LAC face. By considering these challenges and actively participating in studies about ECRs, we hope to create strategies to better support the next generation of science change-makers in the region. The success of this work requires collaboration between ECR organizations and policy makers. Harnessing the human capital that ECRs-LAC represent is crucial for the region to meet the UN 2030 sustainable development goals .

Challenges affecting ECRs, how is the situation in LAC different.

Globally, ECRs represent a more vulnerable group in research, facing specific challenges, which may also vary between regions. The overall increase in doctorates, coupled with deficient creation of new professional opportunities, is resulting in increased ECR job insecurity, jeopardizing their continuity in academia or aligned industries (Editorial 2016; Interview 2019). These issues have been exacerbated worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to more professional precarity, less funding, and increased job insecurity (Byrom 2020; Editorial 2020; Paula 2020). The effect could be stronger in LAC - a region with lower investment in research (Pérez Ortega and Wessel 2020; Bolaños-Villegas et al. 2020). Regional ECR-focused studies conducted by the GYA in Brazil, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Africa (Geffers et al. 2017; Neumann 2018; Beaudry 2014) have highlighted specific regional challenges. Mobility and career internationalization during ECR training is common, however these are increased in African and LAC regions (Beaudry 2014; Geffers et al. 2017; Neumann 2018; Rivero et al. 2020); where international mobility is a necessity, due to a lack of appropriate graduate programs or topic-specific expertise in ones’ home country (Lemarchand 2015; Castillo Jaén 2005). A better understanding of ECRs’ mobility in LAC could help design through diplomacy for science, regional strategies that support the improvement of graduate programs and research careers in the region (Table 1). This will enable ECRs-LAC to have increased opportunities to access quality training, the underlying premise creating the Instituto de Educación Superior de América Latina y el Caribe (IESALC-UNESCO).
The ECR trajectories defined earlier could also impact access to further opportunities. ECRs in LAC hired as postdoctoral fellows usually confront disadvantages based on financial constraints, lack of institutional support, lack of retirement savings and low salaries compared to young scientists in similar positions in developed countries (Righini and Martínez-Mota 2018). Further, the LAC private sector does not report R & D expenditures (Islam n.d.) to create opportunities for this workforce.
While many ECRs’ challenges are global, the research “ecosystems” (higher education and research institutions, government agencies, private sector, and relevant policies) in LAC contribute to the isolation of issues that stem, for example, from international mobility. A trend in some LAC countries to assign more value to professionals that have international training, may cause bias in job prospects, hiring processes, salaries, performance evaluation (preventing objective assessment of the research quality), and funding adjudication (Chiappa and Perez Mejias 2019; Cantini et al. 2019). In a region with great social and economic inequalities, with inequitable opportunities on higher education, this bias for internationalization could perpetuate or strengthen the advantages of higher social classes (Perez Mejias, Chiappa, and Guzmán-Valenzuela 2018). Accordingly, some programs may consider merits and socio-economic level of students, but more data is needed to understand the impact of such solutions (UN, Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2020). While global experience is indeed an added value with inherent validity in terms of competitiveness and excellence, vigilance of practices in processes related to human capital management is advised. An a priori and subjective undervaluation of domestic education and training creates a vicious circle that threatens the quality of the same systems that are the focus of improvement. Also, an ultra-protective system benefiting national graduates, regardless of international competitiveness, is also a dangerous trend. Moreover, reinsertion of ECRs graduated abroad into their national systems as independent researchers, can be complicated by bureaucratic and time-consuming recognition systems of studies abroad . This threatens international/regional agreements that aim to increase international exchange and collaboration, a relevant situation considering that LAC is one of the regions with the poorest intra-regional mobility, with countries turning to the Global North . Both unbalanced internationalism and national inbreeding can be detrimental to conducive research systems. A structured assessment of quality of research produced by ECRs-LAC could be designed and implemented to generate a more holistic view of research performance and its impact (Table 1).
The motivations for home country return are broad and hard to assess as isolated entities. These include scientific trends, national funding guidelines, personal circumstance, instability in host countries or a combination of many. They have been analyzed in some LAC countries (Stehli 2020; Rivero 2018; Rivero and Peña 2020). Often, the main motivation emanates from funding agreements to pursue training abroad that make return mandatory. Additional programs to support repatriation and insertion of highly skilled workers, through funds for research and salary (Arce and Gomis 2018), are key to fully harness the training pursued (Table 1). Unfortunately, oftentimes, ECRs-LAC do not have the equipment or infrastructure necessary for their research, or their home institution does not hire them once the grant is completed (Barañao 2016). Consequently, a fourth mobility subgroup is created by researchers that returned home, and because of socio-political, economic reasons or lack of opportunities, decide to emigrate again.

How regional strategies could increase competitive research in the LAC region.
Irrespective of location, the scientific diaspora can actively contribute to knowledge development and exchange with their home country (Labrianidis, Sachini, and Karampekios 2019; Barré et al. 2003; Palacios-Callender and Roberts 2018). Their potential in science diplomacy and bilateral facilitation is a well-established notion (Wren 2014; Burns 2013). A well-connected diaspora may aid reinsertion strategies (Stehli 2020) as well as help to design national and regional graduate programs that could increase intraregional mobility, strengthening regional collaboration, increasing productivity and visibility of research from ECRs-LAC (Table 1). They could also pose as great science ambassadors for their countries, harnessing international connections and intermixing them in their home countries. LAC countries can actively integrate the diaspora in their science diplomacy strategies, create/strengthen scientific diaspora networks and learn about successful cases from other countries (Gual Soler 2020) (Table 1). Such concepts are already part of Spain’s science diplomacy approach (Elorza Moreno et al. 2017). In Latin America successful examples of diaspora networks exist either as part of a ministerial framework (e.g. Argentina, Mexico), or as groups of independent networks (e.g. Chile) . Similarly, ECRs-LAC, regardless of location, could play a role in science diplomacy and sustainable development of their country and region, through government institutions, international and ECRs organizations like the GYA and TWAS-TYAN. They can give a diverse perspective to ECR issues. Cross-disciplinary studies that focus on surveying the current landscape of ECRs-LAC, are still needed to understand how the regional scientific systems are supporting their careers (Table 1). Comparing with other regions can help discriminate general issues from specific regional ones and learn from best practices. Subregional associations built their research agendas based on common institutional guidelines, that likely differ within LAC, originating disparities in reaching pan-regional goals . Our call to action is to identify the best strategies to solve roadblocks in the way of ECRs-LAC, so the region can benefit from their knowledge production. For each main challenge faced by ECRs-LAC, we suggest which essential actors should participate in the discussion to generate recommendations and ways forward to respond to these issues, using data already generated or that need to be generated from multidisciplinary regional and national studies (Table 1).

Opening the discussion on ECRs-LAC.
Identifying ECRs-LAC concerns can be instrumental to develop supportive policies for the national scientific agendas. ECRs networks and international organizations that include ECRs-LAC living in the region and the diaspora, should work together to design studies to understand their particular challenges and to communicate them to relevant national and regional institutions. The diaspora can directly contribute with locally based ECRs towards scientific collaboration and science diplomacy strategies that have a direct impact on the scientific progress of their home country.
While there have been efforts to assess the status of ECRs-LAC, either focusing on specific countries, disciplines or aspects of their careers, a more holistic and systematic assessment is required. The GYA is undertaking this task, in collaboration with other scientific academies like TWAS-TYAN, as an ECR organization able to provide a voice to the diverse young researchers in the region. The study targets countries with different research profiles as a proxy of diverse LAC systems. Such evaluation in a regional and integrative approach, will enable a combination of science diplomacy strategies with policies for a harmonized advancement of research in the region that could allow a science-based sustainable development. This opinion article is based on current available information on the topic and is an invitation to dialogue about ECRs in general and ECRs-LAC.

Keywords: ECR, Science Diplomacy, LAC, Latin America, sustainable development, Career, scientific diaspora, early career researchers, SDG (sustainable development goals)

Received: 22 Jan 2021; Accepted: 07 Apr 2021.

Copyright: © 2021 Lopez-Verges, Valiente-Echeverría, Godoy, Fernandez Rivas, Urbani, Berger Luis and Carmona-Mora. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Paulina Carmona-Mora, Department of Neurology, University of California-Davis, Sacramento, California, United States, pcarmona@ucdavis.edu