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Tim Osswald
November 12, 2019

Osswald advises Colombia on science and technology

Written By: Adam Malecek


University of Wisconsin-Madison Mechanical Engineering Professor Tim Osswald is among 43 distinguished experts tapped to advise the Colombian government on policy for the new Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The Misión de Sabios (Colombian Wise Committee on science, technology and innovation), launched by Colombian President Iván Duque and Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez in February 2019, brings together a diverse group of experts from Colombia and around the world. The experts are tasked with creating public policy proposals to enhance conditions for research in the country, and drive sustainable and inclusive economic development.

“I was surprised and incredibly honored to be asked to join the Misión de Sabios,” says Osswald, who originally is from Cúcuta, Colombia. “Personally, this is the highest honor I have been given in my career.”

The committee is organized into eight groups, each focusing on different areas of science, technology and innovation. Recommendations from each group will guide the country’s direction in those areas for the next 25 years.

Osswald is a member of the convergent technologies and industry 4.0 focus group. The four-person group is looking at how nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognotechnology (tech applied to the cognitive domain, such as brain implants) can converge to create disruptive new technologies.

“Our group is in charge of advising the Colombian president on how to bring the country into the fourth industrial revolution, which among other things is based on machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he says.

The other members of the focus group include María del Pilar Noriega (MEPhD ‘01), who was advised by Osswald for her PhD at UW-Madison and has had an extensive career in the private and academic sectors in Colombia; Jean Paul Allain, a professor who was recently named the head of the new nuclear engineering department at Pennsylvania State University; and Orlando Ayala, who was executive vice president and world president for emerging markets at Microsoft and is now an international consultant and speaker focused on leadership and technology trends.

Osswald says Colombia, like all Latin American countries, lags behind on internet connectivity, and that leaves many Colombians without an opportunity to benefit from technological advances and participate in the knowledge economy.

He says one key recommendation for the government will be to provide infrastructure to make high-speed internet access available to all Colombians, even those living in remote areas. Bringing the country fully into the digital age, he says, will pave the way for advances in science and technology and empower citizens in an inclusive manner.

Osswald envisions robust internet connectivity significantly benefiting the country’s agro-industry sector. For example, drones could fly over rubber plantations and, by harnessing machine learning, quickly identify rubber trees showing signs of pests or disease. Drones could then spray the affected trees in far less time than it would take workers to go through thousands of acres, checking each tree. “But you can’t do any of this without high-speed internet, so we think that’s an important policy to implement,” he says.

Osswald says the group is also recommending the creation of a digital ID system to track funds used for government contracts and projects. “This system would combat the problem of corruption in the country, and it would also open up the flow of foreign investment into Colombia because there would be full transparency about where the money is going,” he says.

After months of work, each focus group in the committee will formally submit its policy proposals to the Colombian president in December 2019.

“I’m excited about the influence we can have in bringing positive change to the country. We have the ear of the vice president and the president, and they are taking our ideas seriously,” says Osswald, who plans to continue service work as an advisor to the government.

Osswald holds the Consolidated Papers Foundation Chair sponsored by the Mead Witter Foundation and is the co-director of the UW-Madison Polymer Engineering Center. He also is an honorary professor of plastics technology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and at the National University of Colombia. Among his many honors, he was the first academic to receive the Dr. Richard Escales award from the German Engineers Organization for his efforts and contributions in globalizing and modernizing education in the area of plastics technology. He has published more than 300 scientific articles and more than a dozen specialized books and textbooks.