San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Development Strategy Planned

With Inauguration Day almost here, many Costa Ricans are watching Presidentelect Oscar Arias and wondering what he will accomplish during the next four years – but rocket scientist Franklin Chang and other authors of the recently completed Half- Century Plan have set their sights on the year 2050. By that year, if their vision is fulfilled, Costa Rica will be a developed country, thanks to increased funding and support for science and technology.

Arias has expressed his support for the ambitious plan, which calls for Costa Rica to significantly improve its human-development index while avoiding the unsustainable practices some developed countries have used to reach their standards of living.While it’s unclear where the cash-strapped central government will get funds for the project, its authors maintain supporting science and technology is not a luxury, but rather the key to helping Costa Rica make the leap to the so-called “First World.”

Project leader Chang and coordinators Gabriel Macaya and Alejandro Cruz say there’s no time to waste, despite the long-term nature of the strategy. Chang said the first steps the government should take are immediate legal reforms to encourage scientific innovation, and the formation of a permanent council to oversee the implementation of the plan.

“When there’s such a long road ahead, we need to start taking steps as soon as possible,” said Macaya, the former rector of the University of Costa Rica (UCR), during the formal presentation of the plan April 6 at the National High Technology Center (CENAT) building in Pavas, in western San José.

Chemical engineer Cruz told newly elected legislators who attended the event that the pressure is on.

“We’ll be knocking on your door very soon,” he said.

Chang and civil engineer Jorge Manuel Dengo proposed the project – designed to provide a strategic long-term vision for Costa Rican education, science and technology – in December 2004, with the support of the private, nonprofit Costa Rica-United States Foundation (CR-USA). Approximately 250 leaders from the fields of academia, business and politics donated their time to form the work groups that diagnosed Costa Rica’s current strengths and weaknesses, created a vision of the country in 2050 and made recommendations regarding how to achieve those long-term goals.

Dream Outlined

At the April 6 presentation, Chang urged his audience – which included Arias, outgoing President Abel Pacheco, current and future legislators, government ministers and other leaders – to dream of a different Costa Rica. By 2050, in his vision, a Costa Rican will have walked on the surface of Mars; the country’s cities will be safe and clean; the roads will be full of biofuel vehicles whose drivers actually respect the traffic lights; and a thriving scientific community will ensure the country’s exports include “potatoes, onions, coffee and knowledge.”

The hefty plan, published in three volumes totaling more than 750 pages, includes evaluations of 14 aspects of Costa Rican technology, from electrical engineering to telecommunications; a vision of the future; and a three-phase plan for implementation.

It sets specific targets using 24 indicators from per-capita gross domestic product ($6,080 now, $9,150 in 2050), to the number of patent applications (6.9 per thousand citizens now, 9.1 in 2050), to the number of Internet nodes (26 per 10,000 inhabitants now, 1533 in 2050) to the average number of years of education (6 now, 10.6 in 2050).

The authors chose these goals based in part on the model of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, because of those countries’ high indices of human development, Macaya said. Ireland, a country similar in size to Costa Rica that has gone from sending masses of immigrants abroad to accepting immigrants from other countries today, is another example for Costa Rica to follow, according to Cruz.

To reach the goals, the plan calls for boosting human resources for scientific development by improving science education and increasing investment in science and technology. Costa Rica invested only 0.39% of its GDP in science and technology in 2000, less than the 0.58% average for Latin America and the Caribbean and a far cry from developed countries like the United States, which spent 2.68% of its GDP on science and technology that year (TT, July 22, 2005). The plan outlines steps such as supporting technological innovation by small and medium businesses, improving science education and creating a “national innovation network” with participation from universities, the business community and the government. The network would help ensure communication between all sectors so that researchers’ work would match the country’s needs.

The second phase of the Half-Century Plan would designate 2% of the gross domestic product for science and technology, and consolidate the Technological Innovation Network, while in the third phase, 2025-2050, investment would increase to 3% of the GDP and the network would become international.

The Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), a topic often quick to surface when Costa Rican business and technology is discussed, was not mentioned at the presentation. However, both Chang and Macaya served on the President’s Council of Notables, a commission Pacheco selected to evaluate whether CAFTA would be good for the country.

The Half-Century Plan quotes the commission’s final report, which states Costa Rica must reform its political, social, commercial and legal structures, improve its infrastructure and increase government efficiency if it is to benefit from the controversial trade pact.

“Science and technology can become the articulating mechanism for that indispensable change,” the report reads.

Technological innovation will also be essential to achieving the U.N. Millennium Goals set for 2015 (see separate story), according to the report.

“A Mental Problem”

The presentation of the plan was followed by classic and apparently off-the-cuff speeches from Arias and Pacheco, both of whom – in their dramatically different styles – recognized the difficulty of making the Half-Century Plan happen. The Presidentelect presented a compelling assessment of Costa Rica’s needs, with a focus on how the education system is neglecting its poorest students. Pacheco, in response, tossed aside his prepared speech and brought the house down with his trademark humor, though making the serious point that Costa Rica’s lack of development may have roots in psychology.

The President ran down a laundry list of reasons he was given, at the start of his term, for Costa Rica’s under-developed status.

“It’s the latitude,” he said, explaining what some people told him in response to his queries. “At this latitude, with this climate, a person isn’t capable of doing anything more than peeling a banana and eating it.”

After discarding excuse after excuse, Pacheco said, he finally settled on the idea that it’s “a mental problem” and that what Costa Rica may need in order to join the ranks of developed countries is a new way of thinking.

Other speakers echoed his “I-think-Ican” message. Chang – who recently retired after 25 years as the first Latin American in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and plans to open a lab in the northwestern province of Guanacaste for work on plasma rocket propulsion technologies (TT, April 7) – said it’s crucial for Costa Ricans to “buy into” the plan in order for it to work, and change their way of thinking.

“Today we’re thinking more about importing technology than about exporting it,” he said.

Arias expressed agreement with the plan’s focus on scientific education, saying with a smile that if Costa Rica had three  times the scientists and one-third thelawyers it has today, it’d be one of the richest countries in the world. (The Presidentelect has degrees in law and political science.) However, Arias admitted he’s unclear about how to ensure the plan doesn’t just stay on paper.

“I promise the authors we will take this seriously,” he said. “I don’t know how this can be translated into reality. That will be a huge task.”


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