Having been at the helm since the ministry’s creation in 2003, Dr Lino Barañao discusses with Nicolas Carver how the Argentine government dedicates its resources to encourage its scientists to work to develop both the public and private sector, fulfilling the entity’s official name and mission: Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation.
How do you plan to make Argentina more of a scientific hub?
We have particular initiatives for that matter. One is to build the I4—which stands for International Institute for Interdisciplinary Innovation.
The idea is to have researchers from different parts of the world working on different problems in the same space and sharing the same cafeteria, which is essential for interaction. If you want to have lunch you have to go to one place and meet with people. Not only with other scientists, as the cafeteria is open for the general public. We want to show the common citizen that scientists are not so weird—we are kind of weird, though.
In order to be able to set up an institute there, we have to have international partners, and we are forging these partnerships with international institutes and societies to do so.
The other initiative is more focused on Latin America. It is the Latin American Center for Interdisciplinary Information. This is funded by the Latin American Development Bank, and it provides fellowships for students and professionals from all Latin America to come here to a particular center—the University of Buenos Aires’ School of Sciences.
We started with workshops, but the idea is to have students bringing problems that are so complex that they cannot be solved from a single discipline's perspective. So the idea is to put those students in contact with the best scientists we have—physicists, mathematicians, biologists—and they will determine whether the idea is worth pursuing, or if it has been answered already, or if it makes no sense.
We need new ideas. The problem with excellence is that scientists end up focusing on very narrow problems. If Latin America wants to make history in science, we have to begin taking risks when addressing problems. It is not by doing incremental science that it will be able to breach the gap with more developed nations.
This year we have seen Argentina reconnecting politically with the rest of the world, so do you see more scope for international collaborations?
What we have now, in contrast with the last administration, is more interest from investment groups to invest in technology in Argentina. Now we have venture capital funds or companies that are coming to Argentina, looking for opportunities for investment.
In this regard, I am putting most of my energy into the creation of a venture capital fund in Italy. We have signed an agreement (MoU) with the Italian industrial union which aims to create a venture capital fund that will initially have €1 million to invest in agri-food. What the MoU states is that we will provide a portfolio of companies, of which we will have a track record. Also, the venture capital fund will be investing in equity, by which we can provide extra funding for the innovation required to reach foreign markets.
For us, the advantage is that a professional team will take care of the marketing process. Sometimes the problem with Argentine companies is that they are not aware of the opportunities they have worldwide, and they always think in terms of the local market. In order to reach foreign markets, you need a professional group to make the contacts and be able to promote your products in other areas.
Agribusiness makes for 40% of Argentina's exports. How are you prioritizing this at your Ministry, as you currently dedicate 10% of your subsidies to the innovators in agribusiness?
We do invest 10% of our grants, but you have to take into account the existence of the INTA—the National Institute of Agricultural Technology. We have a whole budget devoted only to agriculture. We promote basic research in agriculture, for instance. In terms of our funding, there are hundreds of national research career scientists working in INTA. We also provide funding to companies and SMEs that produce machines for agriculture.
The sector that has benefitted the most from the FONTAR—which is a fund for private companies—is the agricultural sector. Many of the centers for the development of new machinery were funded by FONTAR.
We now have some new areas, such as precision agriculture, which require funding, not only from the traditional sources but also from the new ones, such as software. Agriculture requires specialized software. In fact, there is a foundation devoted to the information technology, which created the application called "Palenque". This provides farmers integrated information about productivity, weather, and use of agrochemicals. The agricultural sector is present in most of our activities.
Has this increased with the current presidency?
There is inertia. What we are funding right now are projects that were selected last year. We have two new projects we are funding that have to do with agriculture. Their pet name is 'super food' and they deal with innovation in the food sector.
If you look at the impact of scientific publications in Argentina—I receive a study on this once a year—the food technology sector in terms of quality is the one that excels over the world average. If you look at the big picture, food technology is a small area but of high quality.
If you go to the investment in R&D compared with the contributions to GDP of the different sectors, the food sector is the one that has the lowest investment. Essentially, they are not making use of the innovation produced in academia.
According to some researchers, the food sector is highly conservative. They are not innovators, they want to follow the market, and they do not want to take risks. We have to work hard in order to promote innovation.
We think that this Italian fund, investing in companies, will change the philosophy. We want to show that if you invest in innovation you can reach markets that are highly lucrative for local companies.
Thanks to our funding, we have one of the most promising scientific prospects. We have a gene isolated from a flower that confers drought resistance, developed in the University of El Litoral. According to some projections, if you apply this gene to your most important crops, there will be an increase in productivity valued in $20 billion per year. It provides not only resistance to drought, but under normal irrigation it also increases productivity by 20%.
This development was produced after 10 years of research. I always show this and other examples to convey that a state policy is needed to reap the fruits of science.
Regarding aquaculture and its keynote Tierra del Fuego project: this is going to be important for business and sustainable development. How do you focus your efforts at the Ministry to be not only on sustainability and technologic advancement, but also to be balanced with the bottom line of businesses?
This idea started two years ago. There was a young professional, a biotechnologist, who was working for a private company. I met her at an end-of-year party, where she was visiting some friends. She said she wanted to work for the Ministry, and had a project related to aquaculture. She had studied the issue extensively, and had all the information she needed.
So we said, “We will do it, we will develop aquaculture.” We made further inquiries about the potential of the sector. We investigated what the bottlenecks were. It was clear it was a complex system, a new productive change, and we could not develop that by working on each sector individually. We had to first check that the whole thing would work.
The system that is proposed by the FAO is a complex one. It is called integrated multi-strophic platforms, which are those that house the fish, the scallops and the algae. You need knowledge, in terms of what the species are, and their requirements. You have to study the currents, the soil, access to the refrigerators, transport. So we have been interviewing all the companies involved in the different stages—we appropriately call them the “big fish”, the investors.
It is an interesting business: they use food for aquaculture; they produce the vaccines and medicines. Most of the elements are already being produced here. There is a company that produces vaccines for fish and they export to Chile. The same with the components for the cages. Everything was already there, but spread out. You have to assemble the puzzle.
We formulated a special project and we proposed it to the IBB and they agreed to run a test, for which we have to select a place. We decided it would be in Tierra del Fuego, which is a particular area where everything seems to be in place. We also have support from the governor there, because there is a need for the reconversion of Tierra del Fuego in terms of the industry. We have to generate new type of jobs there.
We are in the process of presenting the general idea and to open the call for proposals. There are many consortia being assembled to get involved in different parts. We also had a visit from an Italian company—Gruppo del Pesce— that also wants to be part of the project. One of the biggest companies in Tierra del Fuego, which assembles electronics, also own fisheries. This is the Newsan Group, and they are also part of this first consortium.
The idea is that after we prove this is profitable, we will be able to fund similar initiatives along the coast. Theoretically, 5 million square meters are suitable for aquaculture in the sea. There is also freshwater aquaculture, where we have opportunities as well in the northeast area.
This is part of the Pampa Sur Project, which is a highly ambitious project. The goal is to obtain data about the South Atlantic, but also to promote sustainable use of the South Atlantic. A researcher has said, “Imagine a country that has half its surface underwater, and is only paying attention to dry land.”
Is this also a sovereignty initiative, in other words to 'plant the flag' in the sea through science?
One can look at this issue from different perspectives. For some people, this is a sign of sovereignty; you have to show that you have a presence there because it is your territory. From the scientific point of view, what we have to assume is that we have a responsibility. This is research that only we can do, in terms of all the measurements that will contribute to the valuation of climate change, changes in currents, biodiversity, etc.
It is clear that all the ocean system is integrated and that you need to know what will happen both here and in the North Atlantic. This is why this initiative got support from many countries: Canada, Spain, Italy, France, and the US. The most difficult part was to gather seven ministries around a single idea. This is the first time that we have a highly ambitious project interacting with different ministries. We also have the navy, the coast guard and scientists. We have recently purchased a German vessel, fully equipped and cost-effective. We have also received a donation from a private donor who has given us a functioning ship at the price of $1—by law he has to charge us at least that. He can also repurchase the ship at that price.
I think that producing 15% of the country's GDP from the ocean within 20 years is not unthinkable if we consider aquaculture, mineral resources and marine energy. There are plenty of things that can be exploited. The interesting thing is that we, as the Ministry of Science, are the ones handling the projects. We have to make sure that everything is done rationally and in a sustainable way, respecting the environment.