FOCUS ON SCIENCE

Panama 2015 | TELECOMS & IT | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Jorge A. Motta, National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation at SENACYT, on partnering with educational institutions, promoting innovation, and modernizing the private sector.

Dr. Jorge A. Motta
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Jorge A. Motta (MD, MPH) began his academic career at Georgetown University, then continued his post-graduate education at Yale University, completing his training in internal medicine and cardiology at Stanford University. For the past 38 years he has practiced cardiology in Panama. He served as Director of the Gorgas Memorial Research Institute from 2004 to 2008. He was also President of the Panamanian Academy of Medicine and Surgery, Governor of the Central American section of the American College of Physicians, and chaired the Joint Committee of the Special Program for Research and Education on Neglected Infectious Diseases (TDR) from 2009 to 2011. He is currently the President of the Panamanian Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a researcher at the Gorgas Memorial Research Institute.

How are you creating partnerships between the Ministry of Education and universities?

We are doing this by fostering the advancement of skills and talent of Panama's human capital. Since 2005, we have been funding scholarships for Panamanians to obtain advanced degrees abroad. So far, more than 1,900 Panamanian students have attended foreign universities in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain and throughout Latin America for undergraduate and graduate education. Many have graduated with Master's degrees and PhDs. They return to Panama ready and willing to become professors at our universities and to become active participants in advancing our economy. Currently, we spend more than $12 million annually solely on tuition fees in the US, which is a substantial sum for a country of this size. Other key activities of SENACYT are funding research projects of local academics, supporting capacity building of laboratories and financing the strengthening of graduate programs of our universities. For Panama, SENACYT is the equivalent of a National Science Foundation. Since 2004, it has awarded 359 science research grants worth more than $20 million. SENACYT also has a major effort underway with the Ministry of Education to modernize STEM education through a strong teacher-training program. This will benefit universities by providing them with better-qualified applicants.

How much is the private sector investing to develop technology and knowledge transfer?

Panama historically has been a country based in trade and services, particularly in the transportation arena, but we need to keep up with global trends in science and technology. Private sector investment in technology is considerable, although there are needs to give a greater emphasis in innovation and the creation of new knowledge. One innovative company is Calesa, a large aquaculture enterprise, whose shrimp stock at one point collapsed due to a virus and they resolved the problem through science. But much more needs to be done, particularly in the agriculture area.

What is SENACYT doing to instill the importance of investing in science?

President Varela is a Georgia Tech-trained engineer who believes in the importance of investing in science. Together with the executive branch, SENACYT has drawn a strategic plan on science and technology for the next five years and developed a policy for the next 30 years. Specifically, we have been engaging in strategic alliances with the business community with programs that provide financial support for mature innovative business models and seed capital to smaller enterprises to develop innovations.

Which sectors require the greatest investment?

The government has identified certain economic sectors destined for development, such as logistics, mining, tourism and agriculture. But the base for any future growth in these areas has to be education, with an emphasis in science, technology, and innovation. At SENACYT, we believe that logistics and agriculture should receive great attention. For example, agriculture, which represents 3% of GDP but employs around 18% the population, must incorporate more technology for it to be productive, competitive and sustainable.