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 Human Resources for Biotechnology: Latin America
By
Walter Jaffé and Miguel Rojas
 
 
 
Keywords:  Latin America/Carribean; Policies/Programmes; Public institute; Human resources.
Correct citation: Jaffé, W. and Rojas, M. (1994), "Human Resources for Biotechnology: Latin America." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 21, p. 21-22.

Human capacity­building is an often forgotten dimension in the growing amount of literature on biotechnology development. In Latin America, several national and international institutes offer courses on biotechnology. The co­ordination between these initiatives, however, leaves much to be desired.

Taking advantage of biotechnology's opportunities to improve economic and social development, and handling its potential negative impacts depends first and foremost on the existence of a critical mass, capable of mastering the technologies and the underlying scientific base. To develop this capacity is a major short­term challenge governments face.
Ideally, a so­called critical mass could consist of different groups:

The strategy towards the creation of a critical mass has to begin with an increase of the ability to use the broad variety of biotechnologies. A solid understanding of their underlying scientific principles is indispensable too. Additionally, the design of educational strategies and tools for biotechnology development should preferably be determined by the chosen field of application (medical, agricultural, environmental or industrial biotechnology).

Short courses
The fastest way to build a capacity in biotechnology is through short courses and on­the­job training. This training should be directed towards active researchers in biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology or similar fields, to recruit some of them for the core group of biotechnologists. It can be an efficient way for rapidly diffusing new concepts and techniques. International technical co­operation agencies, such as those of the United Nations, have a long tradition in this type of training and have been very active in the field of biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Since 1988, the Biotechnology for Latin America and the Caribbean (BIOLAC) programme of the United Nations University (UNU), located in Caracas, Venezuela, has specialized in short courses and on­the­job training of researchers of the region. It awards 20 fellowships per year, for three to twelve month periods, at leading biotechnology institutions in Latin America. Furthermore, five international two­week training courses are offered each year, organized by universities and research centres in the region, each attended by about 15 scientists. The courses focus on a wide range of topics from immunology and molecular genetics of retroviruses, molecular techniques for genome analysis in plants, to anaerobic waste treatment.
The BAC/United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) programme, in connection with the Technical Cooperation Network on Plant Biotechnology (REDBIO)/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provides scholarships in target areas such as molecular marker­assisted breeding and genetic transformation.

Graduate training
MSc and PhD level programmes of course permit a much broader and deeper treatment of the different technologies and their scientific bases than short courses. Most of the scientists working in biotechnology in Latin America received their training abroad, principally in the USA and Europe. Some universities, located in the relatively more advanced countries in the region (especially Mexico and Brazil), already have a sufficient number of high­level specialists to organize their own post­graduate training programmes.
To develop post­graduate training programmes, the ability to pool biotechnology resources in different faculties is important. For example, at the National University of Colombia, students of MSc programmes in traditional departments, such as medicine, agronomy, veterinary science and biology have the option of specializing in biotechnology by attending some courses and preparing their thesis at the Biotechnology Institute of the University.
The concentration of biotechnology researchers in special units or institutes of universities rapidly leads to the establishment of specialized graduate training programmes, with the aim of a more intense and deeper training.
In Mexico, four universities offer MSc and PhD programmes in biotechnology: Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados (CINVESTAV) of the National Polytechnic Institute (emphasis on fermentation technology); Irapuato (emphasis on plant biotechnology); Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) (emphasis on industrial microbiology); and Instituto de Biotécnologia of the Universidad Autónoma Nacional de Mexico (UNAM).
The UNAM programme, founded in 1985, is the oldest of these. Between 1990 and 1993, 32 PhD and 56 MSc students graduated, and currently there are 48 PhD and 70 MSc students. About 90 per cent of its graduates are working in research and teaching, while only 5 per cent of the MSc graduates are employed in industry.

Under­graduate training
Since traditional technologies in many professions are increasingly being substituted by biotechnologies, it is important to adjust the curricula of many disciplines. This task is very difficult in Latin American universities, because of the highly conservative and inflexible attitudes and procedures. For example, it is estimated that a change in the study plan at Mexico's UNAM takes between 10 and 15 years. This explains why only this year its medicine faculty will offer a course in molecular genetics for the first time.
A more radical proposal is the training of biotechnologists at under­graduate level, although one might question the use of offering specialized training to very young people in a field that is clearly still immature and evolving rapidly. Nevertheless, several technology institutes and universities in Mexico are offering BSc level titles in biotechnology.

Challenges ahead
Until now, the development of a local biotechnology training and education capacity in Latin America has responded mainly to the needs of biotechnology research in the region. But the consolidation of a significant industrial and service activity in biotechnology, makes it necessary to respond to their requirements for trained personnel. This could mean the adjustment of study plans and curricula. It could also imply the design of new training instruments more suited to the production and service sector, for example, a greater emphasis in biotechnology product design, engineering, management and marketing.
Public agricultural and health research institutes, international centres and even a few private research organizations and biotechnology companies employ a significant number of scientific and technical personnel specialized in biotechnology. The use of resources from outside the universities and their research institutes for training purposes could significantly expand the supply of educational opportunities, as well as facilitating the establishment of relationships between the academic sector and industry.
The same imperative of using scarce resources effectively is needed at a national and international level. Until now, the pooling of the resources of different national universities for biotechnology training purposes has been frustrated by competition and lack of established inter­university co­operation mechanisms. At the Latin American level, many international and regional agencies offer or support training activities, with very little inter­agency co­ordination. This has not only produced embarrassing duplications, such as two international agencies offering essentially similar courses the same week in different countries, but has also reduced the effectiveness of the technical co­operation efforts. A minimum of co­ordination is called for, to integrate the different activities within a common human resources development strategy for the region. One step in this direction are the agreements between BAC/UNESCO and FAO in support of REDBIO applications for scholarships, and between FAO and IICA to jointly strengthen and support plant biotechnology activities and biosafety activities.
Walter Jaffé/Miguel Rojas (IICA)

Sources
Personal communications with Dolly Montoya (National University of Colombia), Rodolfo Quintero (UNAM, Mexico), and Juan Izquierdo (REDBIO, Chile).



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