News & Blog

How to Increase the Integration of Cuban Science and Technology with the Global Community

Posted on October 7, 2016

[In my experience both working with Cuba in UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook program, and during birding trips to the island, I’ve been greatly impressed by the depth of Cuban expertise in many science and technology fields. There is a major challenge, crucially involving civil society networks (like CIVIC) both inside and outside of Cuba, to find ways to translate some of this expertise, developed in relative isolation for the past half century, to contexts and language that is understood and appreciated in the wider Caribbean and global science and technology communities. [Not to ignore the several outreach efforts made by the Cuban university scholarships provided for most Caribbean residents, and the many professionals (especially in medicine and engineering) that the Cuban government has provided for technical assistance to Caribbean island states for decades. bp ]

from a post by Yacine Khelladi <yacine at yacine dot net>, moderator of the CIVIC [Caribbean ICT stakeholders Virtual Community <>] :

Can Cuban science go global?

Tensions between Cuba and the United States are easing. But researchers still struggle to join the scientific world.

Sara Reardon 28 September 2016

Image caption: Students collaborate on a physics experiment at the University of Havana.
The western edge of Havana hides a side of Cuban society that tourists rarely see. High fences and thick vegetation wall off the grand estates and embassies where the elites congregate. And amid these enclaves of privilege lies a cluster of concrete buildings belonging to the Polo Científico del Oeste — the ‘scientific pole’ of Cuba’s capital city. Here, a cluster of biotechnology research institutions are protected from the chaos and poverty of a city in transition.

For a country whose entire gross domestic product (GDP) is just half of what the US government spends on research, Cuba punches above its weight in some areas of science. Fuelled by relatively generous government support, biomedical researchers have managed to excel at creating low-cost vaccines, developing cancer treatments and screening infants for disorders. Other areas of science get more meagre funding, but Cuba still boasts some bright spots. As the largest and most populous island in the Caribbean, it is a key node in international networks monitoring hurricanes and infectious-disease outbreaks. And because there is so little trade and tourism, the country has nearly pristine coral reefs and mangroves, which attract attention from researchers worldwide.

The productivity and quality of some research in Cuba surprises those from other countries. “We had the same thought about Cuban science as everyone else did: that it was stuck back in I Love Lucy days,” says Kelvin Lee, invoking the 1950s TV show. Lee, an immunologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, is organizing the first US clinical trial of a Cuban vaccine.

Yet the success stories don’t outweigh the profound challenges facing scientists in Cuba. Research jobs pay poorly, and the number of students getting science doctorates has not risen in the past decade. Internet access is scarce, and those who have it find the service so sluggish that it can be next-to-impossible to e-mail a scientific paper. An energy shortage this summer forced government buildings to shut off their electricity for large portions of the week. During a temporary ban on air conditioning, scientists at the University of Havana sweltered over their laptops in 35 °C temperatures.

Image: Desmond Boylan for Nature
caption: Inside a laboratory at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana.

Another problem looms above all others: the US trade embargo. For the past half-century, the embargo has severely restricted the ability of Cuban researchers to buy scientific equipment, win international grants and travel in the United States.

But in December 2014, US President Barack Obama announced his intention to restore full relations between the two countries and began lifting travel restrictions. On 31 August 2016, a JetBlue Airways plane flew directly from Florida to Cuba — the first commercially scheduled flight between the two countries in five decades. This softening of relations has led to an era of evolution: it has opened up opportunities for researchers, such as easier travel to international meetings, and raises the prospect of many future benefits through collaborations and purchases. Yet the pace of progress has been much slower than many had hoped, and the future of US–Cuba relations remains uncertain. A decision to lift the embargo entirely requires action from a hostile Congress and lies in the hands of the next US president.

And in the meantime, Cuban researchers are stuck with many of the same problems as their counterparts in other developing nations: an exodus of young scientists, difficulty finding collaborators and an inability to afford increasingly specialized scientific equipment. This sets Cuba back years from where it could be, says Sergio Jorge Pastrana, executive director of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. “The changes are coming but they change too slowly.”

Old School

In the heart of Havana’s Old Town, the academy is a cool, marble respite from the humidity. It is in the midst of remodelling: librarians sort century-old books of its proceedings, and Pastrana says that he plans to install solar panels. Outside, people pick their way along streets strewn with construction rubble while shops hawk Che Guevara shirts, cheap cigars and mass-produced paintings of cars.

Like the colourful, iron-railed buildings that surround it, the science academy is a grand institution, the first of its kind established outside Europe. In its 155 years, it has hosted greats such as Albert Einstein and one of Cuba’s most famous scientists, epidemiologist Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever in the late 1800s. Until the revolution, the Cuban academy shared close ties with the US National Academy of Sciences and with its European counterparts. Even under the embargo restrictions, the organization has forged ties with US scientists at institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Pastrana says that science got lucky when Fidel Castro took over (see ‘How Cuban science stacks up’). Cuba could have ended up with “a very bad leader for science”, he says. Instead, one of Castro’s first acts was to create and enforce a universal-literacy requirement, and he prioritized knowledge building and discovery. “The future of our country has to be necessarily a future of men of science,” Castro said in a 1960 speech. The now-famous quote is engraved in Spanish on the wall of the science academy’s lecture hall.


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