San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Reaches For High-Tech Goals

Two days before Laura Chinchilla assumed the presidency of Costa Rica, she and her team of ministers walked out of the Central Bank with black, hand-held tablets.

Each apparatus was embedded with a digital screen about the size of a calculator’s display, and was accompanied by a stylus.

“The digital signature is a modern technological tool that is ecological, quick, safe and efficient,” Chinchilla said in a May 6 press release. “The device has been successful in the European Union and the United States as a means of signing contracts, notifications, and other forms.”

Chinchilla press officials said these new devices will help her administration reduce paper use and keep up with the rapid pace of modern governing.

But these electronic autograph boxes are more than just a sign of the times.

They embody Chinchilla’s vision of a more technologically savvy Costa Rica.

The former-security-minister-turned president campaigned largely on issues of citizen safety. But fighting crime and securing the streets received short shrift in her inaugural address on Saturday.

Instead, Chinchilla, 51, stressed science and technology in her speech to the nation, saying the country’s future will be based on its success in high-tech endeavors.

“We will work for a more innovative, more intelligent, more enterprising Costa Rica with a new economy encouraged by biotechnology, organic agriculture, the audiovisual industry and the aerospace and aviation industries,” Chinchilla said.

Flanked by banners of wind turbines to her left and orbiting satellites to her right, as she looked across the cheering mass toward a poster of children experimenting with a microscope, she recalled the accomplishments of the country’s celebrated astronaut and rocket scientist, Franklin Chang.

She described his seven cosmic missions and his research on plasma rockets with NASA as “singular testimony” to the “excellence” of her Costa Rican compatriots.

These are big dreams in a country whose economy was built on small-scale agriculture and foreign-owned banana plantations.

Interest in innovation is clearly growing in Costa Rica, but if Chinchilla envisions an economy shifting from fruit to space ships, she will need more than a few inspiring words.

“We need materials,” said Cornelia Miller, interim director of the NationalCenter for High Technology (CENAT). “We need to have our own installed capacity. Technology is important and encouraging, but it is something the country needs to really think about.”

Spending in science and technology has climbed in recent years here, but the amount still pales in comparison to the high-tech countries that Costa Rica aspires to resemble.

According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the most recent data shows that Costa Rica invested 0.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on science and technology research and development in 2007. The world’s top innovators, Japan and the United States, spent 3.3 percent and 2.6 percent of GDP respectively in the same areas that year.

Boosting this spending, Miller believes, will encourage Costa Rica’s bright minds to study the sciences and, more importantly, to use their knowledge within the country’s borders.

“It’s no secret that there are a lot of Costa Ricans studying outside the country” she said. “Sometimes, they come back to Costa Rica and the equipment they want doesn’t exist. They go abroad, specialize in an area, return, and quickly discover that the country doesn’t have the conditions that they need to practice their talents.”

Miller thinks that Costa Rica won’t be able to satisfy its experts’ needs without help.

In recent years, NASA has stepped in as a guide for Costa Rica’s budding scientists. In 2008, the U.S. space agency provided four training workshops for university students and government officials in the bustling Franklin Chang building in Pavas, a western San José district.

The courses, funded and taught by NASA personnel, trained attendees to use sensors attached to airplanes to collect data about land structure.

In February, NASA launched a mission in Costa Rica to record the makeup of the nation’s terrain. NASA researchers will give the information to national scientific institutes, such as universities and geological associations, later this year. The employees of these establishments will analyze the data based on the training they received from NASA’s workshops.

In large part, such cooperation has been made possible by Costa Ricans, such as Franklin Chang, who have maintained contacts abroad and pushed for projects here.

“Would we be able to do this without this collaboration? Never,” Miller said. “We need international partnerships and we need those who go abroad to keep the contacts that they make so we can create these accords.”

In March, with the help of NASA, the University of Costa Rica aeronautics and physics department obtained its first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to use for experiments. Researchers said the plane will carry sensors that could help detect gases seeping out of volcanoes and monitor physical changes to the earth. They expect to begin trial runs soon.

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute and the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry have both expressed interest in using sensor technology to aid planning, such as identifying where to string power lines and where to mark national park boundaries.

“All of this requires knowledge and people who know how to operate these systems,” Miller said. “The country needs more technology in more fields every day and there is opportunity for Costa Ricans to create this technology. For that, we need to make decisions that will facilitate scientific study.”

The potential and the desire for technological development exist in Costa Rica.

Chinchilla, at the very least, seems to have recognized this force.

On Saturday, she pledged to “create a Costa Rica where knowledge and technological development have dignity as their ultimate goal … and a Costa Rica that seeks the talent, rigor and imagination of its population.”

Digital signature pads are a small symbol of a presidency that is open to innovation, and Chinchilla’s speech has sparked interest.

Now, she faces the challenge of finding political action to match her words, lest her future scientists and astronauts sign off.

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