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Science sans frontiers: STEM subjects travel the world

April 19, 2012

Global collaborationThe Brazilian government has pledged $2bn to encourage students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) by launching its Science Without Borders programme.

This initiative will provide undergraduates with scholarships to spend a year studying courses abroad in one of the STEM subjects. The news comes at the same time as our House of Lords is analysing the issues around immigration and STEM in higher education. For more on that debate, see coverage of yesterday’s ministerial evidence hearing by fellow PST blogger Adam Smith.

Brazil’s Science Without Borders programme has been launched as a joint effort between government departments in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology. They list the programme goals as:
1 – Promotion of scientific research.
2 – Investment and funding for education resources allocated both within Brazil and outside of the country.
3 – Increase the international cooperation within the scientific and technological scope.
4 – Initiate and engage students in a global dialogue within the parameters of international education.

The initiative has come under some criticism, however, with fears over an exodus of Brazil’s most talented students and questions over the use of the allocated $2bn when areas such as secondary school education have been performing so poorly. Brazil is still an emerging economy but, with a football World Cup on the horizon, is investing heavily to improve to the country’s infrastructure.

There has also been the suggestion that the true objective of this move is to strengthen ties with the US, with a view to gaining a permanent seat at the UN security council and greater influence within the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

But the bigger question is whether this opportunity will actually encourage the next generation to seriously consider careers in STEM subjects, and whether similar projects should be considered worldwide. Moreover, how likely is the Lords committee to recommend splashing cash on this issue over here in the UK?

Competition or collaboration?

As it stands, Brazilian students will have the choice of studying at universities and colleges only in the US – hardly what you would call “science without borders”. But a much wider initiative could see students from all nations being encouraged to spend some time in a different working environment and learn from experts around the world.

The sharing of scientific knowledge to achieve a common goal has been high on the agenda of the UK Government, but extra spending has been understandably low. Existing resources such as the US-led, web-based Scientists Without Borders facilitate the communication of expertise among the research community but can’t strengthen international ties or relationships between institutions in the same way as face-to-face meetings and long-term collaboration.

When a single nation proposes a plan like this, the fears over an “exodus” of students is appreciable, if not necessarily the likely outcome. However, a worldwide initiative could balance out the movement of students and help to foster the global research community by establishing strong links at the outset of an individual’s career.

It might also reduce the financial burden of Brazil going it alone, which would be welcomed by ministers who last month cut the science, technology and innovation budget by $850m in a bid to reduce their overall budget by $31bn. That said, the feeling in the Lords hearing yesterday focused very much on international competition for STEM students, not collaboration.

HEFCE has already identified STEM subjects as “strategically important and vulnerable”, although yesterday’s hearing rooted out that the definition is decided by neither HEFCE nor government. In any case, perhaps it’s time to look beyond our borders and embrace a culture that encourages the global sharing of not just knowledge but the future creators of that knowledge – the next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

Image courtesy of  lumaxart

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