|two articles on Cuban science from Nature magazine, anti-communism and all.
Nature 436, 303-304 (21 July 2005) | doi: 10.1038/436303b
Socialism in one country
Cuba's scientific community has made substantial progress in addressing
Despite a floundering economy, restrictions on free speech and the
incessant hostility of its powerful neighbour to the north, Cuba has
developed a considerable research capability — perhaps more so than any
other developing country outside southeast Asia. Whatever one thinks of
its leader, Fidel Castro, it is worth asking how Cuba did it, and what
lessons other countries might draw from it.
When Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba had almost no scientific
infrastructure. Now it boasts a biotechnology industry that has produced
effective drugs and vaccines of its own, a large and fairly influential
scientific work-force, and a fledgling pharmaceutical industry with its
sights set on export markets. The agricultural sector, in which small
farmers benefit from partnerships with agricultural researchers, is also
quite successful (see Cuban science: ¿Vive la revolución?).
Some of the reasons for Cuba's success are straightforward. The
government has invested heavily in elementary and secondary education,
and has attained developed-world standards of literacy and numeracy in
its population. After university, large numbers of young scientists are
sent abroad for training — once to its Communist allies, more recently
to Europe and Latin America — and Cuba ensures, by fair means or foul,
that they return home afterwards to work.
But one aspect of Cuba's scientific success is often overlooked. At
various times, other Latin American nations such as Venezuela and
Argentina have sought to build up science and technology by supporting a
mixture of pure and applied research, a model similar to that
established in wealthier countries. Cuba took a different approach:
research there is ruthlessly applied.
Cuba's state-sponsored science is structured like a corporate research
laboratory, except that its output consists of social outcomes, rather
than commercial products. If a project looks likely to earn foreign
currency or meet the government's social objectives, it is backed to the
hilt. Cuba's scientists have no funds for basic research, but they
largely back their government's approach, in part because they have seen
how it transformed health services in their country.
But the approach has many drawbacks. One concerns the constraints that
it places on the movement of researchers. Castro's government maintains
strict control on the movement of its citizens. Scientists fare better
than most, and are frequently allowed to attend conferences or spend
time working in foreign laboratories. Yet if they stay away for longer
than permitted, they lose the right to return freely. This draconian
approach to dealing with the threat of a brain drain is in breach of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in
1948. Restrictions on free political expression in Cuba are also
inconsistent with the declaration.
It is questionable, in any case, whether such restrictions serve any
useful purpose for Cuba's government, given the obvious commitment of
the scientists in question to their country's future. Just as
questionable is the purpose served by the continuing US trade embargo on
Cuba, which continues to isolate scientists and others on the island
from their colleagues in the United States, including a large group of
The embargo damages Cuban science and scientific collaboration in
various ways. A Cuban proposal for dengue research, for example, won a
$700,000 award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after
international peer review. But the award has been held up for a year,
lest the illustrious Microsoft founder, his wife and their fellow
trustees be dragged off to the penitentiary for breaching the embargo.
Nature has consistently opposed scientific embargos, and strongly
believes in research collaboration as a means of building bridges
between nations that lack normal diplomatic relations. But there is a
more specific issue here. When Castro dies, Cuba faces a period of
volatility that could endanger key national assets, such as its science.
In preparation for that day, both Havana and Washington should be acting
now to wind down such cold-war artefacts as Cuba's travel restrictions
and the US trade embargo.
Nature 436, 322-324 (21 July 2005) | doi: 10.1038/436322a
Cuban science: ¿Vive la revolución?
Jim Giles 
1. Jim Giles is a senior reporter for Nature, based in London.
Cuba's socialist science policies are producing top-notch research from
scant economic resources. But, as Jim Giles reports, they have harsh
consequences for scientists who do not fit in with government priorities.
It's mid-afternoon in Havana's cavernous convention centre, and Cuba's
leading scientists are extolling the virtues of the revolution. Cuba's
vaccine programme, says one speaker, is the fruit of socialism. Another
tells us that the revolutionary leaders have saved the country's
environment. Behind him, and not for the first time this afternoon, the
giant screen is filled with an image of the commander-in-chief, the
bearded one: Fidel Castro.
It's classic propaganda, of course. But this impoverished Caribbean
nation does punch above its weight in science, boasting achievements
such as the world's only effective vaccine against meningitis B. Despite
suffering decades of crippling US sanctions (see 'Neighbourhood
dispute'), and an economic meltdown since the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Cuba has achieved first-world levels of education and trained a
skilled scientific workforce. But it has done so while restricting the
ability of scientists to work in other countries — a freedom that
academics in many other nations take for granted.
For an outsider, it is a strange and confusing environment. "You'll
never understand Cuba," jokes William Edmundson, director of the British
Council in Havana, who has organized numerous UK−Cuban science exchange
programmes. "I'm much more relaxed now that I've given up trying."
But after spending a week visiting the country's research institutes,
the logic that underpins Cuban science begins to fall into place.
Government-funded science is more like a corporate research programme
than an academic pursuit; scientists' individual interests are
subservient to goals determined from above. But instead of being driven
by profits, these goals are set according to the social priorities of
Castro's revolutionary government. With Cuba's economy in desperate
trouble, this approach has increasingly concentrated resources on
applied biomedical, environmental and agricultural projects, leaving
basic research out in the cold.
Cuba's science model has its roots in the 1959 revolution. Over the 30
years that followed, Castro built strong links with the Soviet bloc,
sending young researchers to the Soviet Union for training. But unlike
Soviet science, which had a strong bias towards projects that
strengthened the military−industrial complex, Cuba focused on health and
social benefits. "We combined applied and basic research, but all of it
was for the good of society," says Pedro Valdés Sosa of the Cuban
Neuroscience Center in Havana, who helped to establish the country's
first brain research lab in 1970.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuban science reached a crunch
point. Cuba suddenly lost its biggest trading partner and source of
economic aid. During the 'special period' — the government's euphemistic
term for the country's crisis during the early nineties — about a third
was sliced off the nation's gross domestic product (GDP).
Rather than letting all Cuba's labs suffer equally, Castro's government
chose to continue investing in applied research projects, while
effectively allowing basic research to wither on the vine. Money
continued to flow into the Western Havana Scientific Pole — a leafy
suburb that is home to 50 or so mostly applied research centres and
their industrial offshoots. Official statistics are hard to come by, but
around US$1 billion is thought to have been invested in the Scientific
Pole during the 1990s. It was to celebrate the fortieth birthday of one
of the pole's institutes, the National Center for Scientific Research,
that the convention-centre conference was organized.
The Scientific Pole can claim some impressive biomedical achievements:
in addition to the meningitis B vaccine, it has produced a cancer
vaccine that, despite considerable opposition from anti-Castro
politicians, has been licensed for use in the United States. And about
two dozen foreign drugs firms are considering exploiting other Cuban
products, says George Morris, chief operating director of the
London-based Beckpharma, which commercializes drugs developed in
academic institutes. Not bad for a nation whose GDP per capita is around
a tenth of the European average, and where scientists earn just a few
hundred dollars a month.
Standing in a muddy field in wellington boots and a grubby sleeveless
top, Osvaldo Franchi-Alfaro Roque embodies another Cuban enterprise that
is attracting foreign interest. Although agricultural research hasn't
enjoyed the same high-tech success as biomedical research, it is noted
for its innovation and environmental friendliness — both enforced
through economic necessity. Franchi collaborates extensively with the
University of Agriculture of Havana, and his farm in San José is like an
open-air inventor's workshop: his device to control irrigation flows,
built mainly from a plastic bottle and parts scavenged from old cars,
has been adopted by farmers across Cuba and neighbouring countries. A
large tank next to his avocado trees contains homemade organic pesticide
— a mixture of water and local natural products, including seeds from
the neem tree (Azadirachta indica).
This make-do-and-mend approach is a Cuban tradition, but became vital
during the special period. Franchi and other small farmers were forced
to experiment with organic pesticides and fertilizers, thanks to the
collapse of agrochemical imports from the Soviet Union, and the
continuing US trade embargo.
Such small-scale and organic local production is now attracting the
interest of some US researchers, who are keen to explore environmentally
friendly alternatives to industrial farming. "I take my students to Cuba
because of the contrast with US agricultural systems," says Catherine
Badgley of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who studies
small-scale farming systems.
Badgley admires the way in which Cuban researchers are helping the
country's growing number of small farmers develop new crop varieties and
cheap methods of pest control that are free of synthetic chemicals.
"People in Cuba are going into farming from other professions," she
notes. "The opposite is happening in the rest of the world." Indeed,
Franchi only took up agriculture when his construction business began to
struggle in the early 1990s.
Franchi's farm and the gleaming labs of Havana's Scientific Pole seem
worlds apart, but Cuban scientists see a common theme. Neither would
exist, they say, without socialist policies for applying science to
local communities and setting research agendas in terms of public need.
Franchi and his academic collaborators, for example, enjoy close ties
with village mayors, and advise them on how to deal with everything from
hurricane damage to energy efficiency. Cuba's biotechnology institutes,
in turn, take advice on priorities from the country's extensive network
of family doctors
For the people
Up in the hills of Las Terrazas, a 250-square-kilometre evergreen forest
reserve that is home to more than a hundred bird species, the tight
links between science and the government's social policies are
particularly clear. When Castro came to power, the hillsides of Las
Terrazas had been stripped practically bare for agriculture and fuel.
Since then, forestry scientists and conservation biologists have
overseen the planting of some 6 million trees — mostly indigenous
species such as teak and mahogany. The residents of a new town built in
the heart of the reserve were recruited to run the forestry projects
and, since the 1990s, ecotourism schemes that bring in around 25,000
visitors a year. "Las Terrazas is a remarkable place because people live
here and support the mission of the reserve", says Badgley. "There are
terrible confrontations between conservationists and indigenous people
in other parts of the developing world."
Visiting model initiatives such as Las Terrazas and the Scientific Pole,
it's easy to think that Cuba is working miracles in science. But a trip
to Roberto Cao Vazquez's chemistry lab at the University of Havana
reveals the grim reality for researchers whose interests don't chime
with the government's priorities. I enter on a steamy afternoon, having
picked my way down the rubble-strewn passage outside. In the lab, the
air-conditioning barely functions. A torn and yellowing periodic table
hangs on the wall. The chemicals stores look pitiful. Cao, who works on
fundamental aspects of supramolecular chemistry, is one of the have-nots
of Cuban science.
A jovial man with a pronounced American accent — the result of studying
in a US-run school in Venezuela — Cao smiles wryly as he describes his
plight. Journals: he doesn't have access to any, and relies on
colleagues to send copies of interesting papers by e-mail. Chemicals:
his budget is just US$1,500 for the year. Equipment: his group has the
country's only nuclear magnetic resonance machine, but it is so old that
foreign researchers would laugh at it. "We're trying to do first-world
science under third-world conditions," he says.
Cao and his colleagues survive by scraping together grants from abroad
and through gifts of supplies brought by visiting foreign colleagues. As
a result, they are able to publish in good journals, although progress
in their labs is slow. "When I go and work with colleagues in Spain I am
three times more efficient," says Cao.
Further evidence of Cuba's scientific divide comes from a visit to the
University of Havana's marine biology lab. The team is respected by
foreign conservationists, who admire the close links and influence the
biologists have with Cuban leaders. But in the grand government scheme,
studies of marine bio-diversity rank well below vaccine development, and
the scientists are often kept from their field sites because they can't
afford fuel for their research boat.
"Our vessel is a Cuban innovation," adds group member Gaspar Gonzalez
Sanson, to the laughter of his colleagues. "It's made of stone." Because
carbon fibre is an expensive commodity in Cuba, the vessel's builders
instead bent an iron-mesh frame into the shape of a hull and covered it
with cement. It's not pretty or easily manoeuvrable — but it works.
"They're a wonderful group," says David Guggenheim, a marine biologist
at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, who is working with Gonzalez
to survey the bio-diversity of Cuba's western shores. "But they're
strapped for cash."
Scientists at Cuba's better-heeled institutes have little to say about
the plight of researchers such as Cao and Gonzalez. And many Cubans are
reluctant to discuss factors that hinder their work — such as rules
governing foreign trips. Relative to most of Cuba's citizens, it is easy
for scientists to travel. But if a researcher outstays the time
permitted by the government, their status at home changes radically.
"Then you can come back but only for short periods," says Cao. "It's a
These restrictions present young researchers with a horrible dilemma.
"Young people are very impressed when they come and see a big lab
abroad," says one Cuban researcher working in Europe, who asked not to
be named. But with many travel permits valid for just a few months, she
explains, they then face a choice between sacrificing an opportunity to
stay longer and do good research, or being separated from their
families. A former professor from the University of Havana has
first-hand experience of this, having overstayed his permission to work
in Spain: "I lost my position in the university and realized that my
name had been erased from presentations I used to co-author."
Given the hardships suffered by researchers outside the charmed circle
of priority applied research projects, it is surprising not to hear more
complaints from Cuban researchers. Government control may be one factor;
open dissent is a risky policy in a non-democratic country. But equally
important is an awareness that Cuba has battled against the odds to
avoid the chaos and privations suffered by neighbouring countries such
as Haiti. Older Cuban scientists, who remember the right-wing
dictatorship that preceded Castro, are especially proud of what's been
The generally positive spin favoured by Cuban researchers is also
reminiscent of first-world corporate culture. And to my surprise, many
Cuban scientists and research managers are comfortable with this
comparison — although quick to stress the differences. "The success is
not sales, it's the impact on society," says Manuel Raíces
Pérez-Casteñeda, a business development manager at the Center for
Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the premier institute in the
Scientific Pole. "We're chasing problems, not profits."
Setting an example
But can Cuba continue this chase in the longterm, having effectively
turned its back on basic research? Halla Thorsteinsdóttir, a
public-health expert at the University of Toronto in Canada, who has
studied Cuban biotechnology, suspects that the lack of dedicated
fundamental research may not be a huge problem. "It's hard to generalize
across fields, but in biotech the boundaries between pure and applied
research are fuzzy," she says. "And Cubans also have the expertise to
take advantage of basic research done elsewhere."
Having so decisively concentrated its resources on a relatively small
number of priority projects, Cuba has also become an experiment in
scientific planning for countries that cannot afford to match the rich
world's across-the-board approach. If it works, other nations are likely
to go down the same route. "Developing countries can learn a lot from
Cuba," Thorsteinsdóttir argues.