CNPq: 50 years of science

LNLSThe scope of support runs from astronomy research to experiments at the National Laboratory of Synchronized LightLNLS

Even if exercising a good amount of fiction, it would be difficult to imagine, at the present moment, the situation of the production of science and technology in Brazil without the action of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq in the Portuguese acronym). The development agency, that in April celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, has been responsible for the systemization of support for scientific and technological research in the country that has allowed Brazil to join the select group of 18 nations that have more than 1% of the worldwide scientific production, measured by the volume of publications. Even if the history of CNPq is made of highs and lows concerning level of cash set aside for research, it is also marked by the constant dialogue with the scientific community and by the formation of a solid system of peer evaluation and these are basic elements for the maintenance of autonomy and of political independence for research.

“The creation of the CNPq is a fundamental landmark in the history of science in Brazil”, says José Galizia Tundisi, the President of the International Institute of Ecology, and who chaired the CNPq from 1995 until1998. “It was a strategic movement of great significance”. Brazil was tuned to what was happening in the world. Its founding occurred only one year after the structuring of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an organism that, in the United States, has fulfilled a very similar role. In Europe, it is contemporary with the merge of three organizations for science funding into the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRF) and the first discussions surrounding the creation of the Ministry of Science in Great Britain.

The founding of the CNPq represented a huge incentive to basic sciences, at that time very poorly developed, explains Roberto Santos, retired resident professor of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), who was the President of the organ for the two years 1985-1986, after having governed the State of Bahia between 1974 and 1978. Lindolpho de Carvalho Dias, who was the head of the agency between 1993 and 1995, points out its relevance for the institution of full time research. “The CNPq spurred the birth of post-graduation in Brazil”, complements Dr. Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the President of FAPESP.

Systematic support
The celebration of the 50th anniversary on the 17th of April, brought together President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ministers, Parliamentarians and researchers from across the country at the National Theatre in Brasília. They had something to celebrate, but to reach the level of today’s success, a long road had to be traveled. In the middle of the last century, science and technology in the country felt the lack of any type of systematic support before the foundation of the CNPq. “Except for some Federal and State investments in areas such as public health and basic sanitation, and for some scholarships granted by the Rockefeller Foundation and initiatives of one or other private companies, there simply weren’t any resources for science and technology”, comments the historian Shozo Motoyama, the Director of the Center of the History of Science of the University of São Paulo (USP).

According to him, the few existing research institutions at that time were frequently obliged to guide themselves by utilitarianism and immediate results. The scarcity of incentive jeopardized the development of research, mainly in São Paulo, which had had a university of the magnitude of USP since 1934. As a matter of fact, one of the first far-sighted initiatives of SeT in Brazil. An example of this short-sight is that in the 40s, the Butantan Institute was almost transformed into a factory for serums and vaccines by the State government, recalls professor Motoyama. “It is possible that the number of researchers in Brazil didn’t go beyond one hundred in 1951”, he adds. “Today the total is around 70,000.”

The creation of a development agency was an aspiration that the scientists united in the Brazilian Association of Science (ABC) had been dreaming since 1919. At that time, due to the lack of resources, they did not attend the first meeting of the International Research Council. The CNPq was born with the name of Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa (National Research Council), on the 15th of January of 1951, largely due to the efforts of Admiral Álvaro Alberto da Motta e Silva, who in 1946 had sent a formal proposal to President Eurico Gaspar Dutra. The creation of a national development organization occurred a short time after the first initiatives for the creation of FAPESP, predicted in the São Paulo State Constitution of 1947, and finally carried out in 1962. A few months after the foundation of the CNPq, the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Capes- Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) would be created, also a very successful agency.

Bombs and sonar
Both in Brazil and abroad, the intensification of government participation in SeT is explained by the strategic importance that science took on in the context of World War II, whose most dramatic moment was the explosions of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the United States, recalls Donald E. Stokes in Pasteur’s Quadrant (Brookings Institution Press, 1997), the scientific community, which up to that moment had preferred not to have a strict agreement with the government in order to protect its, joined enthusiastically the programs promoted by the government authorities. “In Brazil, there had also been a mobilization of the scientists in the war effort. An example of this was the manufacturing by reverse engineering, of sonar for the detection of German submarines”, relates professor Motoyama. “Within this scenario, arguments in favor of the foundation of a scientific council based on national security, met less political opposition”, explains the historian.

“The CNPq came from the articulation of various currents that, if they were not convergent, they were certainly not conflicting”, analyzes Dr. Evando Mirra, the President of CNPq, emphasizing the exceptional scientific education of the military who, with Admiral Álvaro Alberto, worked for the constitution of the organ. Many of these men were, alongside the scientists led by the physicists César Lattes and Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro, on the associate list of the ABC. The intellectual trajectory of Admiral Álvaro Alberto is truly exemplary. A graduate in engineering from the former Polytechnic School, the Admiral showed interest in scientific investigation at an early age, and in 1921 he joined the association. He was a member of the committee that received Albert Einstein when the German physicist visited Brazil in 1925, and five years later he published an article about the theory of relativity in the Brazilian Academy of Science Magazine. In 1935, he brought Enrico Fermi, who carried out the first experiments on the splitting of the atom, to the country.

The determination of Admiral Álvaro Alberto to structure in the country a national research council augmented with the discussions on the commission of Atomic Energy of the UNO where the Admiral represented Brazil. Before the Commission, he defended the position, not accepted, of specific compensations. The idea was that the countries who were producers of atomic raw material, such as the Brazilian thorium, would have the right of access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. “At that time, the expectations were high that nuclear energy would replace coal and petroleum”, recalls professor Motoyama. It was also on this forum that Admiral Álvaro Alberto showed his opposition to the Baruch Plan, which, presented by the United States, would maintain under the control of that country the radioactive mineral resources of the western block.

Another factor that contributed to the formation of the CNPq, observes Dr Evando Mirra, was the notable increase in the public interest for science and its development in the country. At the moment in which nuclear energy represented the essence of modernization, the participation of Dr. César Lattes in the discovery of the pi meson, which gave to the British physicist Cecil Powell the Nobel prize for Physics in 1950, also received wide coverage in the national press. “At that time the event gained as much publicity as the Genome Project of today”, compares the President of the CNPq. He also called our attention to the fact that, in a country imminently agricultural, with only one third of the population concentrated in the cities, the commission which drafted up the preliminary project for the CNPq was already able to have representatives from the business sector.

During the Alvaro Alberto’s administration, which extended until 1955, the CNPq, besides investing in the formation of human resources through scholarships and grants, created the first institutions linked to the organ. In 1956, the formation of the National Nuclear Energy Commission made the CNPq lose the coordination of the activities directly connected to nuclear research and consequently lost a large chunk of its budget. The scarcity of resources resulted in a diaspora of the scientists in search of better work and payment conditions abroad. This situation began to be rolled back in 1967, when the military government promoted the so-called Operation Return, whose goal was attracting researchers back to Brazil, but in December of the following year, with the edict AI-5 ( this edict was the legal framework for the harsher years of the dictatorship), the regime provoked the dismissal and compulsory retirement of many researchers.

In 1974, new changes. The CNPq ceased being an autonomous institution and became a Foundation, which guaranteed greater agility in its decisions and detached itself from the Presidency of the Republic and became attached to the Secretary of Planning. “The change, which involved the physical transfer of the CNPq to Brasilia, also brought on the structuring of a system of evaluation”, says Dr. Mirra. Towards the end of the military dictatorship, the budget for SeT began to decrease, recovering appreciably after the re-establishing of a democracy in the country. It was in 1985, however, that the constitution of the Ministry of Science and Technology, commanded by Renato Archer, immediately tookunder its wing the CNPq. “At that time, the CNPq established priorities for areas such as genomics, that were strong in Brazil, new materials and micro-electronics”, recalls Roberto Santos.

In the period immediately following, under the presidency of Crodowaldo Pavan (1986-1990), the organization invested heavily in the formation of researchers, increasing the value of grants. Also during this period, the National Laboratory of Synchronized Light was created, the only one of its kind in Latin America. It also promoted the spread of scientific information and set up in São Paulo, the Science Station, which years later would be run by USP.

During the government of Fernando Collor, years of political and economical turmoil, economic resources again became scarce. “At a meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, that took place shortly after I took over the presidency of the CNPq, I said jokingly that I was going to declare bankruptcy”, recalls Lindolpho de Carvalho Dias. In fact, the Foundation and the scientific community had to negotiate the reevaluation and the restructuring of some programs, and consequently the partial payment of grants which were in arrears.

The power of influence
During the period from 1995 until 1998, under the presidency of José Galizia Tundisi, the CNPq implanted important projects such as the Reserve for Sustainable development of Mamirauá, which integrates the areas of the environment, social sciences and the managing of natural resources, as well as the Soar program (with FAPESP participation), which has had a decisive influence in the insertion of Brazil into international astronomy research. Another landmark of that time is the launching of the Society for the Promotion of Excellence of Brazilian Software. The goal was to support innovation and the scientific and technological development of national software as well as to encourage its consolidation as an export product.

Presently, the CNPq has maintained the handing out of scholarships at relatively high levels. Last year it gave out 43,000 scholarships. Throughout all of its history it has granted a total of 653,000 scholarships. The organ forecasts a greater volume for 2002, the result of the arrival of significantly higher resources, promoted by the contributions from the new sectorial funds. Dr. Evando Mirra admits that, for some time, the expansion of the distribution of scholarships has had a negative impact on the budget of development activities, but some attribute to the CNPq a capacity for developing research which extrapolates the merely budgetary question. “The CNPq is a brand name, and as such, can generate and foster projects even without resources”, suggests Tundisi. Ex-President Crodowaldo Pavan agrees: “The power of influence of the CNPq is enormous.” In the opinion of Dr. Mirra, in a situation of more complex relationships such as those that have come up in the last 10 to 15 years, its development function can also be exercised through agreements and partnerships.

An example of the results of this type of joint-venture was the creation of a center for scientific and technological development in the region of the Xingó hydroelectric dam, on the São Francisco river. The Xingó Project is a result of the joining of forces between the CNPq, the Hydroelectric Company of São Francisco (Chesf), the Brazilian Service of Support to Small and Medium Companies (Sebrae) and the Solidarity Community Program. The project involves five State and Federal universities in the states overlapped by the region,where serious problems of desertificationand salinization of the soil have been occurring, as well as the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), which had its origin in the CNPq, and the Brazilian Company of Farm Research (Embrapa), which was incubated by the organ. “The Xingó Project has made use of the small urban structure set up for the construction of the power station and has also made a positive impact on the conditions of the life of the local population, promoting the development of a self-sustaining way of life.”

Integrated policies
Another strategy that has been implanted by the CNPq is that of the bringing together of different state research support foundations. “State and regional integrated policies must help the present and future administrations”, says Tundisi. Brito Cruz, of FAPESP, reveals that the Foundation is already discussing with the CNPq the expansion of its partnerships, among which stand out for their importance, the Brazilian Genome Project and the Soar Project. In the vision of Denis Rosenfield, resident professor at the Philosophy Department of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), and vice-president of CNPq in 1999, associations of this type promote the dissemination of knowledge in regional terms. “This model of partnership, which came from the already structured projects in the states, allows the transfer of the accumulated advancements in the highly qualified centers”, he weighs in.

The CNPq has also been strengthening its relations with the private sector, in the majority of cases in association with the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep). “The incentive to develop new technologies in the small and medium size companies, which in most cases have the ability assimilate the new technologies more quickly, is fundamental.” observes Roberto Santos.

Throughout its history, the CNPq has always backed strategic projects for the development of science and technology in the country. An example is the production of insulin at Biobrás, as well as various programs in the area of biotechnology which have as their objective the promotion of the modernization of the agricultural business. “Another project that is especially relevant is Softex, for the exportation of software developed in Brazil”, comments Mirra. For the diagnosis of the necessities of localized developments, he states, one of the instruments is the Program of Appropriate Technologies, with the state governors, another important strategy being presently implemented .

If small business happen to need government resources to develop technologies from time to time, then large companies are beginning to contribute towards science and technology through the sectorial funds. Dr. Evando Mirra affirms that the cash generated by the Petroleum Fund already entered the budget last year. By law, 20% of the resources of the funds will be destined to the CNPq to finance, among other things, the administration of personnel. Lindolpho de Carvalho Dias applauds the initiative. “The participation of the private sector in research support, which reach almost 70% in the United States and 50% in Germany, is only at 10% in Brazil”, he says.

The President of FAPESP sees in the creation of the sectorial funds as an excellent opportunity for redirecting money that was traditionally set aside for CNPq for basic research. Although the funds tend to look at objectives of a utilitarian character, and thus concentrate more on technological development, the President of the CNPq believes that the new projects that will be financed with these resources may involve toobtain fundamental knowledge. “For example, there is a whole range of mathematical problems linked to the dynamics of fluids such as petroleum”, comments Brito Cruz.

He gets particularly enthusiastic about the recent regulation of the Infra-Structure Fund, which will invest R$ 150 million in the recovery and amplification of laboratories and equipment for research centers and with the prospects of a regularization of the telecommunications and information technology funds. The implementation of these funds are scheduled for the second semester. “The idea is to create as many funds as possible”, says Evando Mirra. “In the context of a society of information, agencies with the role of the CNPq are becoming more and more essential”, he reflects.

Support for the Research Institutions
The CNPq has invested in the research structuring through the creation of four specialized organizations. In 1952, the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (Impa) was created, along with the Research Institute of the Amazon (Inpa), which incorporated the Pará State Museum Emílio Goeldi. In 1954, the Institute of Bibliography and Documentation (IBBD) was set up, which later would be transformed into the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology. In 1957, the CNPq founded the Motorway Research Institute, which in 1972 became the National Department of Highways (DNER).

The embryo of the National Spatial Research Institute (Inpe), the National Commission Group of Space Activities (Gocnae) came to life in 1961. From the creation of Inpe on to the mid-70s, we witnessed the birth of projects such as Mesa, for the reception and interpretation of meteorological satellite images; the Sere intended for the assessing of Earth resources through remote sensors in satellites and aircraft; and the Saci, for the launching a geostationary satellite communications with the purpose of enlarging the educational system of the country.

In the 80s, the Inpe developed the Brazilian Complete Space Mission (MECB), which produced results the 90s with the placing into orbit of two Brazilian satellites, the SCD-1 in1993, and the SCD-2, in 1998. In cooperation with China, the satellite CBERS-1 was also launched in 1999.

Throughout its trajectory, the CNPq has also invested in the installation of research institutions such as the National Laboratory of Scientific Computing (LNCC), in 1980, and the Museum of Astronomy and Allied Sciences (Mast) in 1985. As well, it placed under its umbrella important research organisms such as the Brazilian Center of Physics Research, founded in 1949, and the National Observatory, in activity since 1827.

The Inpa was created in 1952. Born in response to a proposal of Unesco with a view to the structuring of an international institution for the Amazon rain forest, it faced nationalistic resistance in Brazil. The institute maintains agreements for bilateral cooperation with various countries and coordinates important projects, such as the Program for Tropical Rain Forest Preservation.