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Interview

A new profile for Fapergs

Renato Oliveira talks about the plans for restructuring the Foundation

Fapergs, the Research Support Foundation of Rio Grande do Sul, founded in 1964, is being restructured to better serve the demands and the needs for the development of scientific research carried out by the State’s universities and research institutes. After surviving a period marked by a serious crisis in its budget and personnel loss, Fapergs is redefining its organizational structure and is seeking efficiency to respond to the demands of the scientific community and of society, taking on an active role in the process of economic and social development. After recently having taken office as the foundation’s director-president, Renato Oliveira, and the entity’s scientific director, Dalcídio Moraes Cláudio, visited FAPESP, which is to be the organizational model for their reform. The aim of the new management is to support and strengthen the research groups that are already consolidated, to foster the activities of emerging groups, and to induce demand in several areas and institutions regarded as strategic for the development of the state. On his stay in São Paulo, Renato Oliveira – a sociologist and a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, and a former president of Andes, the National Association of Teachers in Higher Education – gave an interview to Maria da Graça Mascarenhas.

What are Fapergs’s activities today in fostering research projects and programs in Rio Grande do Sul?
Fapergs is one of the oldest Research Support Foundations (FAPs) in the country. It was founded in 1964, on the initiative of researchers in Rio Grande do Sul, and strongly marked, in its origins, by the model of FAPESP. In 1989, we succeeded in making it obligatory for 1.5% of the net taxation of the state to be transferred to the budget of the foundation, which has a very important presence in the development of science and technology.  In recent years, however, Fapergs has not be able to keep pace with the growth of research in the state, above all for the lack of political support from the government. The transfer of funds was never assured. This implies a very large budgetary deficit and a limitation of the foundation’s operations.

Can this situation change in the short term?
We are convinced that it is changing. In this country, it is common for the support of science and technology to be a sort of rhetorical concession made by governments to the talk of modernity, without it being accompanied by any practical measure. Rio Grande do Sul has been no exception. But this situation is changing. Science and technology constitute today a central concern in the policies of government, which has embraced this area as being part of its strategic policies. There is an increasing awareness that, without heavy investment in science and technology, in technological innovation, certain objectives of economic policy and social development are unattainable, and this should be reflected in a change of attitude towards Fapergs.

So Fapergs is getting ready to intensify its activities?
We took over the foundation’s management practically two and a half months ago, along with the present technical and administrative board. We are finishing the preparation of a few measures that had been taken under the previous management, so that we can now occupy ourselves with redesigning Fapergs strategically, with the support of the state government. Our idea is to re-dimension the foundation, increasing the workforce, but, above all, redefining the organizational structure, in order to adapt it to the demands of the state. In Rio Grande do Sul, a foundation that fosters research not only needs to support and strengthen the groups that are already consolidated, but also to foster the development of emerging groups, acting as a demand-inducing factor in some areas and with some institutes that do not have experience in the area of research. 

How do you rate the current stage of development of research in Rio Grande do Sul?
The state enjoys a developed infrastructure for research, and a highly qualified community of researchers. At the same time, it displays a healthy heterogeneity of institutes, with their distinct vocations. Rio Grande do Sul is peculiar in that it has four federal universities and some important private universities, like PUC, the Pontifical Catholic University and Unisinos, the Vale dos Sinos University, which are beginning to invest in the research area. That is not to mention the communitarian universities, an experience that is typical of our state, which are private, lay, and run by regional communitarian organizations.

What are their characteristics?
They have a strong regional link and are focused on the problems of their region. In the area of research, they are all emergent, but many already carry out important activities, particularly in the area of agronomy or biomedicine. We have, then, large universities, which we can call national, living side by side with solid and strong universities with a regional vocation.  Alongside this, there is a group of research institutes linked to the state administration.  They have suffered much dilapidation over recent years, but are now in the process of recovery.  In fact, Fapergs has a recovery program specifically for these institutes.

Are there, in the state, areas of more prominence?
A traditional area for research in Rio Grande do Sul is the agricultural sector. More recently, other areas of research, like biomedicine, have gained prominence. In the area of cardiology, a center for gene therapy is being set up. The state also has a tradition for research in the engineering area, and is a pioneer in research in the information technology sector. We already had highly qualified capital in human resources and an extremely important infrastructure for research. In fact, it was the development of this sector that made viable the drawing up of an agreement involving the three main universities of the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre, the state government and the capital, as well as a group of companies from the area of information technology and microelectronics, with the support of Motorola, to set up an excellence center for microelectronics, a project that combines research and development.  We also have a well developed area of humanities.

What are the programs in support of research that Fapergs has implemented?
Two or three years ago, the practice was consolidated of launching periodical tenders around a theme which are accompanied by a tender for the level of demand. Two series of tenders are launched a year, at the beginning and in the middle. This practice has ended up channeling all the demand for research project financing to the tenders. The obvious advantage is the channeling of investments to sectors that correspond more directly to the interests of the state. The disadvantage is that there is a risk of restricting academic liberty, in some way.  We are concerned with this, and we will look for a compromise, trying to strengthen themes of free demand, possibly with a continuous flow, as well as the thematic tenders. With regard to the latter, our project is to link the themes that will be chosen to the process of political and social debate that characterizes the political model in Rio Grande do Sul and that involves the various organized groups of the civil society. There is an appeal for these groups to take part in the formation of public policies. This should put research back into the context of the cultural policy of the state.

Does the foundation maintain a scholarship program?
Fapergs does have a scholarship program. We granted 1200 scholarships for initiation into science this year, almost 50% more than last year. We also have a program of scholarship-training for technical level students, and a scholarship program that aims to attract senior researchers from other regions of the country and from other countries.  There is a very limited program for emergency scholarships to support masters and doctors, implemented by the state. The projects that have already been approved by Capes, the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Level Personnel and that have a quota of scholarships can receive an emergency quota from Fapergs. Our intention is to create a scholarship program for students at the level of master and doctor.  There is also a program to support recently formed doctors, connected with private or public institutes, which we intend to expand through agreements with organizations from the so-called production sector. The goal is to place recently formed doctors in companies where they can run research projects.  We are also beginning to define a more ambitious project, which is the establishment of agreements with organizations connected to specific economic activities, in order to encourage research and development. A concrete possibility is an agreement with a cooperative of small farmers in the far northwest, which has over 6000 members, 50% of whom have properties with less than 30 hectares.  The model of the agreement is being discussed and detailed, aiming at the development of technologies in the area of organic farming, in the context of family farming, with the objective of developing methodologies for tracking production and for certifying the end product. This will add value to the farm product, and may turn viable, economically and socially, the activities of thousands of families. This model for an agreement can be reproduced in other areas, including in the more traditional sectors of economic activity, which could achieve gains in scale, in quality, and in added value, if they were to go through a process of incorporating technology.  It may also be an alternative for the sectors of technological development, like, for example, information technology.  This model opens up for Fapergs a new profile for its activities, with resources guided towards technological development in specific sectors.

And how would this support from Fapergs work?
In this agreement with the cooperative of small farmers, the foundations comes in with a certain volume of funds, over three years, with the backing of partners.  The agreement leaves open the possibility of support from other institutions, throughout its implementation.  The projects that are presented in the context of this program are to be approved by a technical committee set up for this purpose, with representatives from the foundation, the institution with which the agreement is made, and researchers in the area covered by the agreement.

In your opinion, what is the importance of the FAPs in the system for science and technology?
FAPESP has proved that the existence of a system for science and technology that enjoys autonomy in its work and its management, and with its finance constantly assured, is vital for the economic and social development of a region, and for the success of the government policies. Fapergs has already taken important steps in this direction. We believe that the setting up and the strengthening of the National Forum of Research Support Foundations from the states could ensure that stable policies for science and technology are institutionalized all over the country, attending to the peculiarities of the various regions. It is understandable that in some regions of the country the foundations  suffer constraints and interference from the state governments. Many states in the north and northeast, or Paraná and Santa Catarina do not even have organized foundations. If we could succeed in coordinating initiatives by some of the important institutions, like FAPESP, Fapergs, Fapemig (the Research Support Foundation of Minas Gerais), Faperj (the Carlos Chagas Filho Research Support Foundation of Rio de Janeiro) and Facepe (the Research Support Foundation of Pernambuco), we would bring a new dimension to the discussion on science and technology in the country. And that would be important at the present moment, since the setting up of funds by sector is generating strong expectations and can cause the regional dynamics to be simply suppressed in some regions, as this model of management is very centralizing. Furthermore, the funds have adopted a model that gives priority to the sectors of the economy that generate resources.  This may constitute a flaw at the origin that jeopardizes the effectiveness of the program.

Would not agreements and partnership amongst the FAPs to develop joint research projects strengthen the system?
Yes, it would share the experience of the regions in the forefront with the other areas of the country. An example of this is the experience of other FAPs taking part in some of FAPESP’s genome projects. We intend to develop work in partnership in some areas.  We are considering the possibility of developing a special program in the areas of information technology and biotechnology, which are areas where we have installed capacity, talent, critical mass, and which are areas at the frontier of technological and economic development.  Starting with the definition of a program, we are thinking of beginning some joint activities with FAPs from regions that already have task forces in these areas, and which can come in with resources for a common task. The creation of a national system that ensures stability cannot be just politics, there has to be a joint task of sharing experience.