Ecuador’s gambit: Study abroad, apply at home

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QUITO, ECUADOR (AP) - Galo Guarderas is starting off on five years of study in Spain to make himself an expert in photovoltaics, a vital field for a world tapping into solar energy.

The price tag for the studies is more than $150,000. But the 47-year-old professor of electrical engineering won’t owe a cent for his doctorate.

His country, Ecuador, is footing the bill.

Guarderas is a pioneering participant in a new program that aspires to convert this small South American nation into a global competitor. In exchange for each state-paid year of school, the professionals guarantee to work at least two years back at home.

President Rafael Correa isn’t just bent on staunching brain drain, in which talented people flee developing countries for lack of local opportunity. He’s determined to reverse it, create a brain gain.

“Without human talent Ecuador won’t advance,” Correa said in a speech last month. “We lack the minimum critical mass of top-flight professionals needed to spur the country’s development.”

Ecuador’s deputy minister of science and innovation, Hector Rodriguez, said the goal is “a radical transformation” from a country whose exports are 77 percent raw materials, chiefly oil, to one that exports technology.

“The best of the world’s science is abroad and we ought to be taking advantage of that,” he said.

The scholarships for professionals such as Guarderas will benefit as many as 2,000 Ecuadoreans this year, twice as many as last year and up eightfold from 2010.

The government will also pay as much as $250,000 to fund undergraduate education at the world’s 50 top universities for secondary school graduates who pass a qualifying exam. The top qualifiers will get to choose their field of study. Others will have their specializations assigned.

Like the professionals, these scholars must give their country two years for every year of study that the government pays, and return home to work at jobs created for them at government-funded academies.

A third piece of the program imports talent already abroad. It has already recruited 100 mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists, half of them Ecuadorean nationals and half foreigners.

Each gets a $6,000 monthly paycheck, and the government is reviewing an additional 1,500 applications from Spain, the United States and elsewhere.

“There’s nothing happening like this anywhere else in Latin America,” said Juan Ponce, president of Ecuador’s branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Science.

International education experts say few programs anywhere address the greatest risk in government-funded study abroad: that scholars will renege on their commitment to return home because they’ve obtained higher-paying work in the developed world.

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