COME & TECH A LOOK

Panama 2016 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Jorge A. Motta, National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT), on the role of technology in the economy and government.

What is the main objective of your partnership with the Ministry of Education?

Our interaction with the Ministry of Education relies on the strengthening of the instructional abilities of the educators to teach STEM. We are specifically focused on science, and later we will move to mathematics. In 2015, more than 680 educators were a part of this initiative to improve their teaching skills in the sciences.

How do you promote interest in STEM subjects among students?

We coordinate with the Ministry of Education, science clubs, and the National Robotic Competition. SENACYT recently joined the international campaign and educational program called “Hour of Code" to promote computer science nationwide. We also use other tools to promote STEM, such as Scratch, a program developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As part of the science clubs, we organize the National Competition of Chemistry in the Kitchen, which allows students to learn chemical reactions through the art of cooking. There is a lot more to do, and we are now launching an aggressive campaign to move forward in the effort to teach students that science is not something entirely abstract and that technology is in every aspect of their lives.

In which sectors do you see technology having the most profound impact?

Agriculture contributes 2- 3% of GDP and employs about 17% of the population; yet it is highly unproductive. However, we do not want to be a country that is dependent on agriculture. We just need to satisfy certain areas of production. Making agriculture more technological and scientific will improve the livelihoods of people working in this area, as it will allow them to be more productive and thus more competitive. Another important sector is health, which is my field. We need to have experts who know how to incorporate technology into the healthcare system, but we are still struggling like many other Latin American countries.

What needs to be done to promote the commercialization of research and advancements in technology?

Panama is still in the early stages. We seem to have gone through a phase of just producing scientific and academic papers, but this is about to change, as the incubators and the entrepreneurial associations are starting to develop. SENACYT is involved in helping the efforts of the Technological University of Panama (UTP) in this regard. Innovation is what we need to work on, and to do that we need to convince ourselves that we can be innovators—that we have talent. In order to be an innovator, a certain level of education is necessary.

What are the main pillars of the recently launched National Strategic Plan for Science, Technology, and Innovation 2015-2019?

The Plan was approved by the Council of Ministers on January 2015. It is a plan that was developed by different segments of society. It is not only a five-year plan. It now comprises a 25-year policy. We did not develop a plan by area. Instead we have taken a completely different approach and our objective is to use science to support the sustainable development of equity, and central to this goal is health and education. With the funds that we were assigned by the government of the Republic of Panama, we will continue with the development of human capital in fields such as engineering, science, and mathematics, both in primary and secondary schools, but also in advanced degrees at the Master's and PhD level. The pillar of innovation seems to be embedded in a culture that needs to be developed locally, because businesses can get complacent while external competition remains ferocious. Panamanians are beginning to understand that, and we need to constantly remind them that innovation is key. The Plan also focuses on the governance of the whole national system of science, technology and innovation of Panama, because the issue is that it has not been well articulated. SENACYT is also an administrative agency that provides support to the research facilities in different parts of the nation. Science has to be integrated into the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Environment, and even the Ministry of Commerce. What we would eventually like to see is all of the government entities creating an office dedicated to science and technology within their organizational structure. We cannot think that by just giving money to SENACYT, science has already been taken care of.

How much does SENACYT give each year in grants?

The largest financial support is given through our scholarships abroad, which receive about $15-20 million per year. Financial support for research grants is smaller, at about $3 million. We also organize the National Award of Business Innovation and Seed Capital grants to support the National System of Innovation, which accounts for at least an additional $2 million. These are small compared to what other countries do, but this is new for Panama and it is a good amount relative to the size of the country.

Are you planning to expand funding for research?

Last year we granted funds to R&D 72 projects. This was a tremendous change, because we had gone through a period in the last two years, with the previous administration, where no projects were funded. The funding varies so much that it is another disadvantage for our country. We plan to regulate funding as we want to support more projects.

What are your expectations for 2016?

We have a plan to increase the number of our community centers that provide free 8nternet access, known as Infoplazas, from 241 to 300. We are expanding and locating the new Infoplazas in remote rural areas. We are creating an alliance with an educational institution that gives high school diplomas via radio and establishing agreements with organizations to add educational content to Infoplazas.