Let Colombia’s scientific history begin

I used to think that, in order to be a scientist, one also needed to be a rebel. I used to think that people who dreamt of becoming scientists also needed to be brave and, above all, have the strength to go against the thousands of voices who, wrongfully, keep advising them to take different paths. I used to think that becoming a scientist meant driving in the opposite direction, accelerating as fast as possible, with the conviction that everyone else was headed the wrong way. But now I understand that this is only true in places like Colombia.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with a few PhD students from the Centre for Theoretical Physics in the ETH in Zürich, Switzerland. Innocently, I commented that I had always thought it weird that none of the scientists I knew had parents who were also scientists.  As soon as I finished my sentence, two of the students immediately reacted:

– Then, I’m the first one. My dad’s a physicist!

– Hey, mine too!

Amongst the five people sitting at that table, 40% had at least one parent who was a scientist. Incredible. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that I only knew the professions of my friends’ parents in Colombia. They were medical doctors, engineers, architects… But none of them were scientists.

In fact, the majority of scientists my age come from families of scientists. For example, my officemate’s father is a biology professor at the University of Alberta, the father of a friend in the office next door is the director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology in the University of Calgary, and the list goes on. In the world of research, Colombia’s case is the exception, not the rule.

During my undergrad in physics in Bogota, I would constantly hear the following questions being frequently asked to any aspiring scientist:

– What are you planning to do after graduation?

– Pure physics or engineering physics (sic)? Seriously? Pure physics? (As if physics could somehow be impure)

– Are you crazy?

– And what are you going to do with this?

Juan Manuel Pedraza, Professor at the University of the Andes, said the following in an interview:

Juan Manuel Pedraza

Juan Manuel Pedraza

“When I said I was going to study physics, my parents told me: ‘No way, you’ll die of hunger! What are you going to do as a physicist?’ So I told them: ‘OK, I’ll study civil engineering too, so I can live off something later on’.”

Another example? Ana María Rey, Professor at the University of Boulder in Colorado, who was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also had to fight against her parents’ wishes.

Ana María Rey

Ana María Rey

“I went to the University of the Andes, I must say, without my parents’ approval, who wanted me to study engineering. So I was lucky because I won a scholarship to study physics and that’s when my career began.”

I was lucky because my parents never opposed my academic decision, but I’m sure it was also an act of courage for them to give me their support.  They were as rebellious as I was, for example, when they had to defend me after hearing one of my relatives say: “It’s such a shame to see that Juan Miguel is wasting his intelligence studying physics.”  I simply can’t imagine any Colombian in my parents’ generation saying something like: “I’m so happy, we’re finally going to have a scientist in our family!”

However, I’m not just trying to complain about this difficult situation; I also want to try to explain it. My hypothesis is the following: The adversity that science has to face in Colombia is due, at least in part, to the fact that there is no history of Colombian science.

Why is there so much uncertainty? Why are there so many questions regarding a scientists’ career?  Because almost no one knows of any successful Colombian scientist! There are no precedents; no one is familiar with it. Why are these questions so recurring? How can they be explained? Perhaps in the following way:

What are you planning to do after graduation? Explanation: I have no idea what a scientist does because I don’t know a single one.  I know what a lawyer, an engineer or a medical doctor does; but a physicist… no clue.

Pure physics or engineering physics (sic)? Seriously? Pure physics? Explanation: I’ve only heard of pure physics as a concept, not as a profession.  Or, as a job for people who want to become physics teachers. Do you want to be a teacher?

Are you crazy? Explanation: Only a crazy person would study something I’ve never even heard of. Quantum mechanics? Isn’t that a theory by Deepak Chopra?

And what are you planning to do with this? Explanation: I can tell you’re smart, so I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. There must be a reason why you want to become a scientist, even though I can’t think of any way in which this could be useful. Can you make money out of that? Start a company?

How different things would be if we could refer to existing historical examples, prominent figures of science in Colombia, important discoveries and achievements, all of which could help give perspective to the dreams of aspiring scientists. But such a thing does not exist.

Someone in England can dream of becoming the next Newton. Someone in the United States can dream of becoming the next Feynman. Someone in Serbia can dream of becoming the next Tesla. Someone in India can dream of becoming the next Bose. Someone in Poland can dream of becoming the next Marie Curie. Someone in Argentina can dream of becoming the next Maldacena. Someone in Colombia can dream of becoming the next… who? Actually, no one.

The next Garavito? Give me a break.

The next Garavito? Give me a break.

 The history of science in Colombia must start some day, preferably soon.

Why do I insist on science? Why is science so special compared to the many other academic fields? Because science gives us the tools to understand and manipulate nature, and this knowledge is the starting point of technological and economic development. 

It’s a simple formula: scientific research leads to discoveries, which are transformed into new technologies. Then, these new technologies result in economic growth. And all this comes with the added benefit of providing us with a better understanding of the universe and our place in it. Wonderful.

Investing in research is one of the smartest decisions a government can make. You don’t believe me? Take a look at the following chart:

Ranking of countries in terms of investment in research and development, as a percentage of GDP.

Colombia: 0.16%

And now let’s compare it with these countries’ ranking in terms of GDP per capita:

  • Israel: $34.770 (ranked 25th in the world)
  • Finland: $35.617 (ranked 24th in the world)
  • Sweden: $41.188 (ranked 13th in the world)
  • South Korea: $33.189 (ranked 27th in the world)
  • Japan: $36.899 (ranked 22nd in the world)
  • Denmark: $37.900 (ranked 19th in the world)
  • Switzerland: $46.430 (ranked 7th in the world)
  • Taiwan: $39.767 (ranked 16th in the world)
  • United States: $53.101 (ranked 6th in the world)
  • Germany: $40.007 (ranked 15th in the world)
  • Colombia: $11.189 (ranked 85th in the world)

Investing in research generally leads to economic prosperity and social well-being. It’s really that simple.

As for my own area of research, quantum information, the Canadian government invested millions of dollars in the Institute for Quantum Computing – where I work – with the goal of placing it as the leading research centre of its kind in North America. Recently, the government of Great Britain announced a 270-million-pound-investment in quantum technologies. Other countries, such as Singapore, China, and Australia, have made similar investments over the years.  If the technologies that may arise from these endeavours (quantum computers, quantum sensors, and quantum cryptography) manage to have a strong economic impact, these countries will benefit immensely. Colombia will not.

A few weeks ago, when the world cup ended, millions of people dressed in yellow jerseys were screaming that Colombia had made history because it had reached the quarterfinals of the tournament for the first time.  But now that the party is over, it’s easy to realize how little impact a sport has in changing the course of a country. Colombia is a place with a rich history in politics, sports, culture and the arts. But it doesn’t have any scientific history.

My friend Juan Diego Soler says that: “Someone with a PhD in Colombia is like a dog who can drive the Transmilenio (i.e. Bogota’s ironically-named bus system)… no one knows how he achieved it and no one knows what to do with him.” This has to change. It’s time to ask the Colombian government to invest in science. It’s time to support all aspiring scientists. It’s time to read and learn about the great achievements of science. It’s time to leave the past behind, learn from uncountable mistakes and transform the country. It’s time to start making history, the type of history that really matters.


This post was brilliantly translated and greatly improved with the help and talent of my loving spouse, Aleksandra Ignjatovic. She continues to improve my life in ways I never anticipated.



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