PAST a new electron microscope, a spectrophotometer, and sundry laboratory equipment, you will find Antonio Pena Diaz squeezed into an office not much bigger than a closet.
One of Mexico's leading microbiologists and past president of the Mexican Academy of Scientific Research (he stepped down in February), Dr. Pena is catching up on some electronic mail from a doctoral student in the United States. And he's brainstorming about what might be dubbed a ``hemispheric free-trade agreement for eggheads.''
Scientists figure that if the industrialists in gray suits can pull off a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), so can the lab boys in the white coats.
``We're in a period where the economic borders are disappearing. Why not the scientific borders?'' asks Pena, director of the Institute of Cellular Physiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
``Instead of duplicating efforts, we should be cooperating across borders and getting better use of limited resources. The idea is to foster an environment for collaboration throughout the hemisphere,'' he says.
Pena is co-chairman of a group of scientists from 11 nations advocating what's known as the Western Hemisphere Science Collaboration Initiative.
The initiative calls for creating better communication and cooperation by setting up computer networks to exchange information. It wants to encourage governments and international institutions to provide scholarship money and fund collaborative research efforts that draw on the expertise of several nations. The long-term goal is to set up a Pan American Research Foundation.
This is not a scheme by underfunded Latin American scientists to grab funds and ideas from supposedly ``rich'' northern neighbors, Pena says. US and Canadian scientists are also advocates of the initiative. And Organization of American States and United Nations representatives are on the steering committee.
``In many Latin American nations, there are world-class scientists in specific fields. Of course, you won't find excellence in every discipline, in every country,'' says Francisco Ayala, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a genetics researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
There are also sound economic reasons for the initiative. Dr. Ayala says there's a tendency for Latin American graduate students to automatically go to the US or Canada, without realizing a top scientist and program exist in a neighboring country. ``It's easier and cheaper for a student to go from Bogata to Caracas than to the US,'' he says.
The subject of the group's first collaborative effort will be biodiversity. A hemispherewide conference is planned for late June in Manaus, Brazil. Pena says he'd rather be focusing on basic science. But other topics are more easily funded. ``Biodiversity is a topic with a lot of activity now in various countries,'' Ayala says. ``It's an urgent subject given that tropical forests are disappearing rapidly.''
Latin American economies are generally growing again, rebounding from the hyperinflation and debt crisis of the 1980s, which saw science, education, and most other budgets slashed. There are NAFTA-like bilateral and multilateral economic-free-trade agreements in place or being negotiated throughout the region.
To be competitive in a more open economy, many nations are realizing that an investment in science and technology is not a luxury but an economic necessity.
For example, since joining the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1986 (GATT) and NAFTA, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari says his country can no longer put off investment in science and technology. ``By opening our market to the rest of the world, we have deliberately imposed a deadline on ourselves for becoming more efficient,'' he says.
Mexican spending on scientific research was 225 million pesos ($67 million) in 1981. It had fallen to 130 million pesos in 1988, when President Salinas took office. This year's budget comes in at 204 million pesos - a significant increase over six years, but still less than 1981 spending levels.
In case Mexico hadn't gotten the message, the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) published a report advising Mexico to boost spending on science and technology. Mexico became an OECD member earlier this month.
The OECD report says Mexico spends only 0.33 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on science. To be competitive, this should be increased to 1 percent by early in the next century. Industrialized nations such as the US, Japan, and Germany spend about 2.9 percent of GNP on scientific research and development.
The push to fund scientists and set up overseas ties is part of a regional change in attitudes. The political fashion in the '60s and '70s of a centrally run economy of protected industries produced a similar approach in the scientific community, Pena says.
``For awhile, Latin America tried to develop science on its own, with individual national efforts. But it was a fictitious concept. Every time we held a conference, there would always be many participants from the US, Canada, and Europe,'' he says.
The hemispheric initiative is bolstered by a US-Mexico-Canada scientific-exchange program unveiled in February. It's backed by the National Science Foundation in the US, the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Mexico's National Council on Science and Technology. It offers young scientists the chance to visit research institutions in any of the three countries for a period of three to 12 months, all expenses paid.
``This is for the development and economic survival of our three countries,'' says Peter Morland, president of the NSERC.