Ecuador's Gambit: Study Abroad, Apply at Home

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"Apart from whatever I'm assigned, I want to develop ... a private initiative to install photovoltaic cells on private homes, which in the long term will mean allowing people to disconnect from the country's power grid."

Goodman said that the "Science Without Frontiers" program that neighboring Brazil announced last year is "the gold standard" in efforts to reverse brain drain. It is granting 100,000 scholarships for university study abroad, three-quarters of which will be paid by the state, the rest by the private sector.

Yet that program doesn't include job guarantees for beneficiaries. Nor does it specify any commitment to government service upon return.

Brazil's education minister, Aloizio Mercadante, told reporters recently that officials have no problem if some of the beneficiaries stay in the country where they study because that gives the government and scientific institutions contacts in those countries.

Correa, an economist, is himself a product of education abroad. He earned a master's degree from Lovain University in Belgium and a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Upon returning in 1999 to this nation of 14 million people he became a university professor and later economy minister. The presidency is his first elected office.

Correa is a polemical leader internationally, a leftist widely criticized for strong-arm tactics against a hostile press that he accuses of being a tool of oligarchs. He openly seeks to diminish Washington's influence in Latin America and cultivates such nations as Iran, Russia and China, the latter of which buys most of Ecuador's oil.

Yet Correa also leads Ecuador's most stable government since 1995. He enjoys an approval rating of more than 70 percent thanks to generous social spending, in which education is a priority, and will be up for re-election early next year.

His government's plan for reversing brain drain is not without critics.

Milton Luna, who directs an independent think tank known as the Social Contract for Education, said the initiatives "are making education increasingly more elitist."

"It's a message of lack of faith in Ecuadorean universities," he said, although the government says its initiative won't mean any less money for state universities. It isn't saying how much the new plan will cost.

For the undergraduate study-abroad program, 713 students were selected from 154,000 who took the qualifying exam. If they don't wish to study abroad, the state will pay the full cost of university at home.

Juan Castro, 17, is one of the qualifying students, scoring 961 out of a possible 1,000 on the test. He's about to finish high school.

Castro has forever been fixated on understanding how things work. First he took toys apart, then he started in on household appliances.

"I didn't really care to watch television but I wanted to know how it worked. So I would study it and take it apart, though I wasn't always able to put it back together properly," he says, smiling.

His middle-class family could never afford to send him abroad, but now he's looking at alternatives in the United States, France and Canada.

"I want to be a robotics engineer or theoretical physicist. That's what attracts me a lot. I want to be a researcher. A theoretical physicist involved in research, in creating technology, in creating energy."

"Ecuador needs new sources of energy. I would love to discover some kind of alternative energy source that revolutionizes things."

Such ambitions are exactly what the program's creators seek.

Rodriguez, the science and technology deputy minister, says the object is to cure Ecuador of the "curse of abundance," the idea that oil wealth has encouraged countries to shun their own development while relying on imports financed by easy exports.

"We get almost everything we need with little effort."


Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano reported this story in Quito and Frank Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.