U.S. Scientists Get First-Hand Look At Cuba's Science Programs

January 11, 1999

Another indication of a possible thawing of frosty relations between the United States and Cuba was the attendance last month by a group of U.S. scientists at an international scientific meeting in Havana. Observations of the state of science in Cuba, based on discussions with the visiting scientists and Cuban scientists, are reported in this week's edition of the magazine Chemical & Engineering News, internationally recognized for its in-depth coverage of the chemical sciences and business.

"Economic necessity" is driving Cuba to find ways "to rescue its crippled economy from an overdependence on sugarcane," according to the article. The magazine, published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, states that Cuba is looking to science particularly chemistry, biochemistry and genetic engineering as a way of diversifying its economic base.

The article's author, William Schulz, a reporter for the magazine, accompanied the group of scientists who were given approval by the U.S. government to attend the 3rd International Cuban Chemical Congress held Dec.1-4 in Havana. The meeting was sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), a nonpolitical organization promoting technical dialogue among scientists worldwide.

There are more than 200 research centers in Cuba and each is "forward integrated," the article notes, "meaning that R&D, production and marketing all are carried out under the aegis if not the very roof of each center." The purpose for this, according to Cuban Chemical Society President Alberto Nu'ez Sell's, Ph.D., "is to develop and market products for Cuba as well as for markets in developing countries where large multinational corporations do not dominate."

A vaccine against Type B meningitis, a cholesterol-lowering drug, and bone and ocular implants made from Cuban coral are now being marketed by Cuba to other nations, Sell's claims.

Other Cuban research highlighted in the article includes "new therapies for speech- and hearing-impaired children, treatments for sleep apnea and psychiatric disorders, the use of ozone to fight germs, speed the healing of wounds and improve blood circulation, and an anticholera vaccine from techniques in genetic engineering."

Sell's describes the state of most areas of chemistry in Cuba as "world level" and says the level of chemical education in the country is high.

There is growing international interest in Cuban science, especially in Canada and Western Europe, according to the magazine. "In part, that is because Cuban scientists have been forced to work around the constraints of the U.S. embargo," the article claims. "Advance scientific instruments built in the U.S. or marketed by U.S. companies, for example, are prohibited from sale to Cuba." However, rather than isolating Cuban scientists, the article says, "the embargo has instead often drawn sympathetic attention to their plight."

Paul H.L. Walter, Ph.D., 1998 president of the American Chemical Society, who was among the group of American scientists attending the Havana meeting, noted that much of the business that Cuba could be doing with the U.S., instead goes to Canada. "The blockade does bad things for the U.S. and the Cuban people, and Castro and Canada win," he observed. Walter also praised Cuba's rigorous educational system, although he did criticize an overreliance on theory rather than laboratory work in the teaching of chemistry, which the magazine ascribes to Cuba's "overall lack of money and materials for experimental work."

The lack of advanced scientific equipment in Cuba drew harsh criticism from one Nobel laureate attending the meeting. Herbert Hauptman, Ph.D., one of the co-inventors of X-ray crystallography equipment, described chemistry in Cuba as "backward" because of the sparsity of modern equipment.
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A nonprofit organization with a membership of more than 155,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.



American Chemical Society

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