The Power of Education

On September 25-27, the Chile-Massachusetts Energy Forum 2013 was held in Boston. This was the second forum organized by the Chile-Massachusetts Executive Council, which was created in October 2012 with the support of AmCham Chile. The first, on education, was held in 2012.

The purpose of the Council is to implement an agreement signed by President Piñera and the Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, to increase collaboration between Chile and Massachusetts in the areas of education, energy and biotechnology.

The president of the Council is Arnoldo Hax, a Chilean native and professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Here he talks to bUSiness CHILE about the Council’s work and, specifically, the importance of the MIT-Chile program, which is part of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI).

What has the Council achieved since its creation last year?

We have been doing two things. One is to establish forums, such as the Energy Forum, which bring together relevant parties from Chile and Massachusetts to exchange ideas and see whether collaboration will take place. The other thing, which I think is more pragmatic, is the MISTI MIT-Chile program. Last year we sent 30 students from MIT to Chile who spent between three and six months working primarily in universities and laboratories but also in industries.

The other part of the program, which I think is very important, is where MIT faculty members get together with faculty from Chilean universities and develop joint research activities. Last year we approved 24 projects in a wide array of areas. It’s outstanding to see the breadth, depth, and relevancy of the projects. Chile’s Ministry of Economy said this is the most successful technology transfer program that they have had.

Last year we held an education forum. Seven rectors of Chilean universities came to Boston and we engaged in a really rich and interesting dialogue to understand the challenges associated with Chilean universities and how Massachusetts could help. I think it was very constructive. The third forum will be next year on biotechnology to close the loop.

Are you surprised by the success of the MIT-Chile program?

In the beginning I was a bit concerned, why would MIT students be willing to go to Chile when they have the world before them? We have similar programs with every country on the planet. But 30 students showed up.The same goes for my colleagues at MIT. Research is their most important priority, who would be willing to establish relationships and associations at the bottom of the world? Well, we had 26 applications.

In addition I went to Chile and visited universities. Now the universities involved in the MIT-Chile activities are the Catholic University of Chile, Adolfo Ibáñez, Diego Portales, Federico Santa María, and Austral University. I explained to the rectors what we are doing and I got a phenomenally warm reception.

Why would MIT students go to Chile?

Chile is unequivocally the successful model in Latin America. It’s a country with sound institutions and no corruption to speak of. It has great universities, great professors and great students. In the context of Latin America, Chile is exemplary. Chileans are tremendously hospitable and welcome foreigners with open hearts. Students and faculty go there and have a great time, and they come back and tell that.

When will the program start to have an impact in Chile?

Research projects do not come about instantly in terms of their impact. The forums are an educational effort for Chileans to educate Americans on the pressing problems they face, and for Americans to educate Chileans in terms of our experience in the US that could be transferred to Chile.

Take the energy issue, which is one of Chile’s most pressing issues. The fact that we got Ernest Moniz, who was the leading energy expert at MIT at the time [now US Secretary of Energy], to come to Chile in January was a big coup. Thanks to this, the Catholic University of Chile started financing a joint research project with MIT on issues of energy. The problems are great but at least we are beginning to work on these issues.

Chile will have a new government in March next year, how could that affect the program?

I hope the Ministry of the Economy will continue supporting this initiative, but we don’t know. The Ministry has approved the budget for next year, which can be modified by the new government, but it maintains the support. The budget has increased significantly. [Former Minister of Economy Pablo] Longueira said he would not put any constraints. So far so good, but we don’t depend on the Ministry entirely, we have a solid foundation with the major universities in the country.

How can private enterprises in Chile be encouraged to get more involved in university research?

That’s a good question. Chilean companies do not have the kind of mindset that American companies have with regard to universities. American companies know very well the importance of research for their own benefit. Chilean companies don’t fund research activities. I’ve spoken to Chilean executives and they say that if they need technology they go abroad.

Chile has top universities and graduates who can compete on equal terms with MIT graduates, but the research capability of Chilean universities is far from comparable to a top US university. By bringing in seasoned researchers from MIT to work with professors at Chilean universities, we are beginning to show them the way, but that takes a while. It’s like planting a tree – you don’t see it overnight, you have to be patient.

In June President Piñera awarded you the title of ‘Commander of the Order of Merit’ in recognition for your services to Chile. How did that feel?

I’m Chilean, but I’ve spent my professional life in the United States. My wife always tells me I am doing more for Chile from the US than I would in Chile. It’s true. There are few Chileans in positions like the one I have who are as committed as I am to Chile. So you can imagine what it means that my country gave me thanks. It meant a lot to me, and I treasure it immensely.

Julian Dowling is Editor of business CHILE