Studying life

When we talk about Biology, most of people think about studying animals and plants, and although this science does include the study of them, reducing it to only two groups is a mistake.

Biology is defined as the science that studies living beings, and as complex as living things are, so is this science.

As biologists, we study from the chemical composition of a cell, to the most complex relations that occur between complete ecosystems. Inside and outside these ends, there are several ramifications that are necessary to comprehend life. Biology can explain how a species evolved, the reasons of its current distribution, its behavior, the traits of its embryological development, how Earth was thousands or millions of years ago, the function of microorganisms, the relation between organisms of the same or different species, the function of different molecules in a system, and a lot more. And this, without considering that we can specialize in one type of organism and study all of the above on it.

Studying life is not easy, and in many situations we depend on other sciences and disciplines to explain itself or other phenomena in nature. With frequence, biology is involved with anthropology, sociology, politics, geography, medicine, engineering, technology and even economy. When working altogether, these disciplines aid in understanding the relationship between humans and nature, how we have influenced it, and how it has influenced and been useful to us. Furthermore, it is only with them that we can search for more sustainable ways to exist as humanity.

As part of nature, humans rely directly and indirectly on ecosystems and their services. However, in the last decades, natural resources have been so damaged that we are causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of Earth. Only in Guatemala, natural forest covers about one third of the territory and is restricted, almost exclusively, to Protected Areas.

This is why Biology is so important, because is through it that we can find solutions to problems that threat our own existence in Earth. And this is not all; even industries, like the pharmaceutical and food ones, have used the foundations that biology has settled to create new products that improve the life quality of humans. Medicine, through parasitology, physiology, biotechnology, and others, is no exception.

In Guatemala, we still have a lot to research and discover. Research opportunities in biology are huge, but are hindered by the lack of interest of authorities in funding and promoting any kind of science, specially if it benefits the common good.

This is why we march.

History, what for?

History’s purpose is often questioned because it is believed that it does not affect the daily life of normal people; even in the Academy, its role as a science is doubted.

Usually, citizens believe that the work of History is limited to remind us of important personalities and dates. However, this is a consequence of how we have rote-learned History in school.

There is a popular acclaim that says “whoever doesn’t know their history, is condemned to repeat it”, and this is completely true, but the central point is not what happened but how it happened. This is what encourages reflection and, in consequence, has a pedagogical role for citizens.

Thus, to understand how we function as a society, it is necessary to resort to history, because our future is chained to past events.

History is useful, for example, to understand the ideological polarization we are suffering today, where we’re trying to reduce everything to a fight between the righ-wing and the left-wing; this is not casual but causal. Also, it is used to detect when some politicians manipulate history in order to adjust it to their discourse.

Photo by Mauro Calanchina.

A historian’s labor can be compared to solving a ten-thousand piece puzzle, when only we’re given two-hundred. Therefore, history is often making use of other disciplines; sociology, demography, archaeology, architecture, anthropology, etc., help History to assemble this big puzzle.

In Guatemala, there is a lot of work that has to be done, not only because there are several gaps in our past, but also because sometimes it is necessary to rewrite history. It is imperative that we change the form in which we are teaching history in order to make it more attractive and welcoming to critical analysis and debate.

I invite everyone to forget shyness and come closer to this wonderful science.


Translation by Andrea Martínez.

There is science being made in Guatemala

Bárbara I. Escobar-Anleu & Enrique Pazos

Guatemala is located in Central America bordering with Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. It is the largest economy in the region which is based mostly on agriculture. The main products are sugar, coffee and bananas. For historical and political reasons, the evolution and production of knowledge in Guatemala has been limited and slow. Research and technology development activities have neither been oriented to satisfy the demands of the society, nor to promote an integral development of the country. As the largest economy of Central America, Guatemala should also have the highest scientific output. However, with barely 11 scientific publications per million inhabitants, it does not occupy the expected place in the regional context.

According to the GO SPIN survey conducted by UNESCO in Guatemala, there are several worrying statistics which point to a severe problem concerning the general scientific activity in our country. For a start, the number of full-time scientific researchers is about 27 per million inhabitants. This number is 16 times lower than the average in Latin America and 262 times smaller than in developed countries. The mentioned survey also states that for an economy to become knowledge-based in a visible way, the number of researchers per million people should be around 1000 or 1200. Other important factor is the astonishingly small amount of money that the government spends in science and technology, which is 0.029% from the GDP. This is 25 times less that the average in Latin America, 85 times less than Western Europe and around 200 times less than South Korea or Israel. If we add to these numbers the fact that access to education in Guatemala is very limited (about 3% of the population has access to a university), we see that increasing the number of scientists and the expenditure in science and technology is not an easy problem to solve.

In the midst of this precarious situation there have been some actions that pave the way for further development in science, technology and innovation. For instance, there is a major yearly event that reunites Guatemalan scientists working abroad with their local peers, with the objective to create and foster scientific collaborations. This event is organized by the National Secretary for Science and Technology. Another sign of advancement is that this same institution has also started new financing programs to help develop scientific research in different areas, but it is still dependent on local authorities and the political environment.

In 2017, a group of around 50 people attended the call issued by the March for Science, and met spontaneously in the central park of Guatemala City. The general perception was that there is a lack of knowledge about science in the country and something should be done about it. In 2018 there was more organization and different institutions were involved. This time around 250 people participated, there was a space with an open microphone to share opinions and discuss the role of scientists in the country. A manifesto was also prepared to show the little investment in science and how this impacts the development of the country. The year 2019 will be the first in which Guatemala will carry out a mobilization for the March for Science with the following objectives: i) generate in the Guatemalan society the interest in science as a way for the development of the country, ii) strengthen the scientific community through activities during the march, iii) generate critical spaces for the development of science and iv) evidence the problems that hinder the development of science in Guatemala.

As scientists and educators we put our best step forward in the construction of a better country. We want to share our wonder for discovery and the complex harmony that characterizes the diverse processes of the world we live in. We want to learn more and use our knowledge to help alleviate suffering and to solve the big problems that we face as humans and as a society. We firmly believe in a better future for everyone.