This conversation was originally published in Science & Diplomacy, available here.
Ambassador Ramón Eduardo Martínez de la Guardia has led the Panamanian Embassy to the United States since June 2022. Previously, he was the Minister of Commerce and Industries, where he promoted the development of industry, local and international trade, and the attraction of investments that generate economic development for Panama. Ambassador Martínez has 20 years of experience practicing commercial and corporate Law, advising local and international companies.
Ambassador Martínez spoke with Kim Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy at AAAS and Executive Director of Science & Diplomacy, on Panama’s national strategy for science, technology, and innovation diplomacy. This is the thirteenth conversation in the Ambassador Conversation Series.
Kim Montgomery (interviewer): The United States and Panama first established diplomatic relations in 1903. As the ambassador of Panama to the United States since May 2022, what ambitions did you enter this position with and how do you think Panama and the United States can best cooperate on science and technology issues?
Ambassador Ramón Martínez de la Guardia: The United States was the first country to recognize Panama as an independent republic and since then, it has been our strongest and most important ally. Our approach at the Embassy is to make the most out of our common values and shared interests to strengthen cooperation between both countries, promote investment in Panama, and collaborate in tackling hemispheric and global challenges, including climate change.
In terms of science and technology, Panama and the United States have a very long tradition of collaboration. A group of biologists from the Smithsonian Institution arrived in Panama in 1910, to conduct an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Panama Canal area, establishing the foundations to what later became the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI),1 the only branch of the Smithsonian Institution outside of the United States. We have worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on earth observation and with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in meteorology and hydrology. Additionally, we are part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, or CMAR, along with Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, to link existing marine protected areas. Through a Memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. and CMAR countries will work together to strengthen marine governance, maritime security, and marine conservation.
But I believe that it is important to further expand our collaboration and ensure ongoing communication and coordination between our nations’ agencies and among our scientists. Expanded contacts and better information systems may open new areas of opportunities. In the short term, we could consider updating existing cooperation instruments; for example, the General Agreement on Technical and Economic Cooperation, signed in 1961, could be updated through a supplementary agreement to reflect the advances in science diplomacy.
Montgomery: Panama’s economic growth rate is among the highest in the western hemisphere. Economic development was a big priority for you when you served as the Minister of Commerce and Industries. What is the role of science, technology, and innovation in economic growth in Panama?
Ambassador Martínez: Investment in science, technology, and innovation (STI) is key to the economic growth of any country, both quantitatively, through the increase in GDP, productivity, and jobs, and qualitatively in terms of a more equitable distribution of wealth and fair and sustainable human development. Over the last couple of decades, we have been among the fastest-growing economies in the world. We understand that STI are essential as we seek to sustain this trend. We are already an important hub for logistics, financial services, and the digital economy. Panama is also making strides to establish itself as a key destination for investments in knowledge-intensive strategic sectors including cybersecurity, life sciences, and semiconductors. We can also see Panama becoming a hub for green hydrogen distribution as a part of efforts to decarbonize the marine industry. These all depend on STI, and our diplomacy reflects that understanding.
Our success in these industries is closely linked to the development of our human talent and that is also why as an Ambassador, I have sought to expand our collaboration between our government and important academic institutions in the United States. For example, Texas A&M is a key partner of Panama on issues related to life science and biosecurity; we are in conversations with Arizona State University to advance our position in semiconductors and cybersecurity.
Montgomery: In 2018, on the Day of the Panamanian Diplomat, Panama launched a national strategy for science, technology, and innovation diplomacy. Can you tell us more about the development of this strategy? What are its long-term vision and objectives? How do you think this strategy has already impacted Panama?
Ambassador Martínez: The strategy for scientific, technological and innovation diplomacy facilitates contact, exchange, and cooperation between the various national scientific actors and those of the international community, while promoting the generation of evidence that helps formulate better and more sustainable public policy.
The vision of this strategy is twofold: First, from the scientific perspective, it is intended to promote the role of STI in sustainable development and to identify and solve national and global challenges by linking research and policymaking. Second, from the perspective of Panamanian foreign policy, it is a quest for solutions to global problems, with a particular focus on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through dialogue and international cooperation. The impact of this strategy in Panama so far is reflected in the joint participation of scientists and diplomats in the formulation of public policies, such as national ocean policy. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, international cooperation supported the work of our health and research entities.
Montgomery: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted both the need for and the shortcomings of science diplomacy. In 2021, contributors to Science & Diplomacy examined Panama’s response to the pandemic, observing the successes and lessons learned from the country’s response. What lessons do you believe Panama has taken away from the pandemic, and how will it be better ready for, unfortunately, the next one?
Ambassador Martínez: The pandemic highlighted the importance of investing in healthcare systems, especially in research and development and in digital inclusion. Furthermore, it made evident the role of international collaboration in responding to crisis.
The Panamanian government has been working with international partners to play a role as a biosecurity and surveillance hub for the western hemisphere. In addition, in April 2024, we will inaugurate the Regional Center for Innovation in Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals in the City of Knowledge,2 a business and technology park located across from the Panama Canal. We are also developing the City of Health, a complex that will have more than 200,000 square meters dedicated to innovation, research, and advanced healthcare. It will house the School of Medicine of the University of Panama, the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies,3 the National Oncological Institute, a new pediatric hospital and the Regional Center for Health Training and Simulation.
With the United Nations system, we participated in negotiations at the World Health Organization for a treaty to address pandemics and includes the international community’s preparedness and response strategies for new global health emergencies.
At a regional level, we are a very active part of the Economic and Health Dialogue of the Americas, an initiative that we co-chair along with the United States, to improve regional preparedness for future pandemics and share best practices between ministries of health and ministries of the economy.
Montgomery: One dimension of science diplomacy is using diplomatic initiatives to foster international scientific cooperation. How has Panama used this dimension of science diplomacy, especially relating to the institutes you’ve mentioned, particularly the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), with its research facilities and field stations across Panama?
Ambassador Martínez: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has played a vital role in facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange between Panama and the global scientific community. STRI receives over 1,400 scientific visitors annually, as a hub for international, cutting-edge research on conservation, adaptation, evolution, and biodiversity. This multidisciplinary environment has proven instrumental in fostering scientific collaborations that transcend borders and unite experts from many countries. The research conducted at STRI not only circulates widely within the global scientific sphere, but also reaches policymakers in Panama. This ensures that scientific findings inform decision-making processes and policy development, fostering a mutually beneficial relationship between science and diplomacy.
Furthermore, the global media coverage of STRI’s research amplifies Panama’s scientific achievements and enhances its international reputation as a center for scientific excellence. By showcasing the groundbreaking work at STRI, Panama effectively communicates its commitment to science collaborations and positions itself as an attractive destination for researchers and institutions seeking to engage in joint endeavors.
Montgomery: You talked a little bit about the SDGs already, but my next question for you relates to how science, technology, and innovation will be essential in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Could you expand on how Panama is using STI to achieve its 2030 agenda?
Ambassador Martínez: To achieve the SDGs, Panama has a national strategic plan for 2030. Our focus is promoting inclusive economic growth, reducing poverty and transforming the lives of citizens while protecting the planet. STI plays a fundamental role in gaining new knowledge, protecting the environment and biodiversity, improving health, generating and encouraging the use of clean energy, and increasing productivity and competitiveness.
I want to present to you three examples of our achievements: first, Panama has already far exceeded the United Nations’ 30x30 goal (30% of land and marine habitat conserved by 2030), thanks to scientific research, in which the work of STRI and the Coiba Scientific Research Station4 has been fundamental. Panama has protected 54% of its marine surface by including the areas of the Coiba mountain range in the Pacific, and Banco Volcán in the Caribbean. Second, Panama has established an energy transition agenda based mainly on SDG 7, that aims to make the national energy sector reliable, safe, sustainable, affordable, and accessible. Renewable energies generate over 80% of our electricity, and our national electric mobility strategy projects that 10% of private vehicles, 50% of government fleet vehicle, and 30% of public transport will become electric by 2030. And third, regarding health, during the pandemic, the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies sequenced the coronavirus, identifying its lineage and providing epidemiological data that was essential for policy responses.
Another project that is coming soon as a part of our effort to address the SDGs is the Center for Innovation, Research and Hydro-Environmental Technology (CITEC), an initiative promoted by the Panama Canal Authority with the support of the Technological University of Panama and the City of Knowledge Foundation. CITEC will promote efforts to protect water as a resource, based on research on hydrometeorology, sustainable agriculture, and the development of the canal basin.
Montgomery: Panama has abundant nature and biological diversity. What are some places you would recommend to someone visiting Panama, especially if they are interested in science, technology, or the environment?
Ambassador Martínez: The list of recommended places is extensive. In Bocas del Toro, Dolphin Bay, which is home to bottlenose dolphins for most of the year, is an enchanting place to appreciate these beautiful animals. The beaches of the province of Los Santos give visitors a spectacular scene of the largest spawning of sea turtles in the region and their subsequent entry to the sea.
Whale watching can be done between June and October in the Pearl Archipelago, Santa Catalina, Isla Palenque, and Isla Taboga. The Biomuseum is also worth a visit, not only for its unique architecture, but also because of the masterful way it presents our natural history and the emergence of the isthmus as a bridge of life.
And the list goes on, but I want to end with the Interoceanic Canal Museum, located in the touristic area of Casco Antiguo and the Panama Canal Visitor Center at the Miraflores and Agua Clara locks. In addition to appreciating the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, visitors learn its history and relationship with the identity and development of Panama.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- For more on the STRI, please see: https://stri.si.edu/
- For more information on the City of Knowledge, please see: https://ciudaddelsaber.org/en/
- For more information on the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies, please see: https://www.gorgas.gob.pa/
- For more information on the Coiba Scientific Research Station, please see: https://coiba.org.pa/