30 years of Mercosur: expectations and challenges in science and technology
Since its creation in 1991, Mercosur was conceived as a strategic project for the countries of the Southern Cone of the American continent. The initial agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay sought to provide stability to the democratic institutions of all four republics, although the axis quickly shifted towards the economy and the possibility of revitalizing the productive systems. At both levels, the strengthening of scientific and technological capacities represented a direct contribution to the model of social and economic development outlined; a consolidation based on the significant synergies and complementarities that could be achieved in the light of an expanded institutional space.
Mercosur went through different phases that left their imprint both in policies and in the integration instruments. Its first phase, in the 1990s, was characterized by a process of opening, deregulation and liberalization of the markets. Thus, in the first decade the emphasis was laid on the advantages that resulted from the economic efficiency of a larger scale and a new flow of trade between the partners. In its second phase, at the beginning of 2000, following the change in the political orientation of Latin America’s governments, Mercosur recovered other dimensions of the initial strategic vision and moved towards a multidimensional agenda. However, the international crisis of 2008 brought about a new process of stagnation and the regression to purely trade aspects. Between 2015 and 2019, the project experienced a lack of agreements and effective actions, while the name Mercosur was only mentioned as a resource to seek alliances with other blocs outside the region.
Thirty years after the start of the Mercosur integration process, to reflect on the implementation of a regional scientific and technological policy is not only timely, but also necessary. The advances of science and technology for innovation in recent decades has shown that the ability to generate and apply new knowledge is essential for vigorous, self-determined development based on principles such as equity, inclusion, diversity and sustainability. Although the Mercosur countries made important progress in individual terms –even though insufficient to close the gap regarding the main developed countries-, the challenges they face reaffirm that, for progress at a faster pace and with more transformative achievements, the strengthening of the work on the whole is required.
The number of R&D researchers per million inhabitants in Mercosur tripled between 1997 and 2017. Although all countries experienced an improvement, the most important increases took place in Brazil and Uruguay. In comparative terms, in the same period, the number of R&D researchers in the rest of Latin America evolved with little dynamism, with the exception of Costa Rica, and below the change experienced by the European Union where the total number of researchers was doubled.
Investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP, even with certain ups and downs and disparities among the Mercosur countries, has shown an upward path in the last twenty years, with an average increase reaching 80% for the region between 1996 and 2017. In this dynamic, Paraguay and Uruguay stand out with the best results, although they are also the countries that started with the lowest coefficients. This data is in contrast to the meager result of the rest of Latin America, whose average remained practically stagnant. In the case of the European Union, the improvement in this indicator, in the same period, was close to 30%. However, the absolute amounts of investment in R&D place each regional space in very different ranges. In addition to the differences in the amounts of resources mobilized in each economic area (the European Union exceeds the Mercosur as a whole by more than 7 times), the percentages are still higher in the European continent: investment in R&D on GDP in Mercosur was 0.61% in 2017, while 2.17% in the European Union.
The difficulties presented to Mercosur for the establishment of a regional sphere with shared capacities are also reflected in the trajectory of the bloc's scientific and technological policy. The agenda was fundamentally based on the creation of instances of dialogue and institutional agreement such as the Specialized Meeting on Science and Technology (RECYT), while the initiatives to jointly assume the intrinsic risks of technological development did not achieve decisive relevance. Some of the areas that already existed at the time of Mercosur’s creation maintained an inertial dynamic parallel to the bloc's agenda. In general, the actions that were intended to be more transformative had sporadic political support, unilateral and without a significant allocation of resources.
In recent decades, Brazil has been internationally recognized for its advances in technologies related to oil exploitation through Petrobras, for its achievements in aeronautical engineering or its strategies for the local development of technologies related to health. Argentina has also made significant progress in terms of satellite technology or in the development of seeds and other chapters of biotechnology. At the same time, it continues to exceed milestones in nuclear matters and bet on a greater degree of independence in radars and communications. The development of the software has had an interesting result with success stories in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. The member states also expanded their university systems, advanced in international rankings, and strengthened their promotion systems in science, technology, and innovation through specialized agencies with increasing competencies in the evaluation and management of funds. To these individual capacities, we should add some bilateral projects, especially between Argentina and Brazil, highlighting those linked to information technology and biotechnology platforms; and, more recently, to the satellite field for a better knowledge of the sea based on the agreement between the respective leading institutions in aerospace technology.
More by omission than by decision, in science and technology, Mercosur has maintained an intergovernmental space in recent decades without expanding to the rest of civil society or influencing business projects. At times, it gained prominence as a linkage resource with the European Union and other extra-regional spheres. But making science and technology a regional public good is still pending. At present, Mercosur has a new opportunity to resume the path of strategic integration, to redouble efforts and to make the common market a platform not only for taking advantage of economies of scale and agglomeration in the production of goods and services but also, and particularly, for the creation of knowledge and technologies that contribute to strengthening the scope of action of its partners and the collective project in order to pave its own future in a context of globalization in crisis.
Fernando Peirano is President of the R + D + i Agency; and, together with Patricia Gutti, are researchers from the National University of Quilmes, specialists in science, technology and innovation policies.
This article is an abbreviated version of the text published in the book “Mercosur. A state policy”. 30 years of Mercosur, Presidency of the Nation (Argentina).
 Los datos utilizados corresponden a Banco Mundial y Eurostat.