By Andres Oppenheimer

Latin American presidents should take a close look at the latest U.S. technological innovation figures: They show that, despite signs of progress in several countries, the gap between Asian and Latin American countries keeps widening.

New figures from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show that Asian countries increased their number of patent registrations by 73 percent over the past 10 years, while Latin American countries increased their registrations by only 34 percent.

In overall numbers, the gap is staggering: Asian countries registered 76,000 patents of new products in the United States in 2011, while all Latin American countries together registered only 500 patents in the same year.

South Korea, a country that five decades ago was poorer than virtually all Latin American countries, registered 13,000 patents last year in the United States, compared with Brazil's 230, Mexico's 115, and Argentina's 50, according to the U.S. figures. The U.S. figures are considered a key indicator in the world scientific community because they tend to match trends of foreign patent registrations in Europe, Japan and other major markets.

"The difference is abysmal," says Gustavo Crespi, a specialist on technology and innovation with the Inter-American Development Bank, referring to the numbers of patents registered by Asia and Latin America. "Latin America has been increasing its patent registrations, but the Asians are moving much faster."

Granted, several Latin American countries are moving in the right direction. Brazil, Argentina and Chile have among other things recently increased their investments in research and development, and are offering growing public support to their scientific communities.

But experts agree there are five main reasons why Asian countries are advancing more rapidly, which has helped their economies grow more and reduce poverty faster.

First, Asian countries invest more in research and development of new products. While Japan and South Korea spend about 3.5 percent of their respective gross domestic products in research and development, Brazil spends 1.2 percent, Argentina 0.6 percent and Mexico 0.4 percent, according to IADB figures.

Second, in Asia most of the research and development is done by private companies, while in Latin America most of it is carried out by the state. While 75 percent of China's research and development is done by companies, only 45 percent of Brazil's comes from the private sector.

That's important because private companies are closer to the markets, and usually invent products that are easier to sell at home and abroad.

Third, Asian universities are producing large numbers of engineers and scientists, while Latin American universities are producing mostly graduates in social sciences and humanities. Last time I counted, the giant state-run University of Buenos Aires in Argentina had three times more students of psychology than of engineering.

South Korea has about 10 scientific researchers per 1,000 workers, while Argentina has an average of 2.2 scientific researchers per 1,000 workers, Chile 2 and Brazil 1.1, according to IADB figures.

Fourth, Asian countries provide more incentives for companies to invest in research and development, as well as more rewards for university researchers who patent inventions.

"We need a system that rewards researchers not only when they produce a paper, but also when they register a patent," says Mario Cimoli, head of the technology division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Fifth, Asian universities are much more internationalized than Latin America's. They offer more dual-degree programs with foreign universities, they have more visiting professors and more graduates who obtained their degrees from the world's best universities in the United States and Europe.

My opinion: The underlying reason why Asian countries are advancing more rapidly in scientific innovation is that their societies have an obsession with education that is still missing in most of Latin America.

Asian students spend more time in school -- Japan's school year has 243 days, while in many Latin American countries it doesn't reach 160 days. Asian governments are more obsessed with producing scientists and engineers, and Asian parents are more demanding with their children's performance in math and science.

Some Latin American countries, like Brazil, are starting to catch up.

But the latest figures from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show that they have to move faster, because the gap with developed countries and emerging Asian nations keeps growing.


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World - Latin - Asian Technological Gap Keeps Growing | Global Viewpoint