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Interview

José Fernando Perez: A route of opening up to society

MIGUEL BOYAYANPhysicist and engineer José Fernando Perez, 60 years old, married, father of two children and proud grandfather of two granddaughters, one in the range of 1 year old and the other close to 3, whose photos he usually, betwixt rapture and tenderness, to distribute regularly over the Internet to those closest to him, spent the last 11 years at the fore of one of the most important executive posts in the policy for science and technology in São Paulo: as FAPESP’s scientific director. In this quality, since December 1993, he has magnetized the Foundation with his expansive style, his enthusiasm, and, in particular, an enormous capacity for proposing, welcoming and carrying out new projects. This competency came onto the scene driven at the same time by dreams, almost private visions of the future – not exactly individual, but rather common to the group of researchers with which he has been most attuned since being a student – and by ideas, well grounded and well discussed in the ambit of FAPESP’s Board of Trustees and even of the São Paulo scientific community – polemics aside.

En route, Perez gathered, as was to be expected, criticisms, some of them bitter, from traditionalist sectors, but he garnered in a far larger quantity valuable – and public testimonials -, at home and abroad, in recognition of  the quality of  his work as a director of FAPESP and of his role of leadership in strengthening of key areas for Brazilian scientific and technological development. A leadership that,  he makes a point of emphasizing in this interview in which he examines what has changed at FAPESP in these 11 years, can only be exercised with the collaboration of his direct advisors, his assistants of the Scientific Directorate whom he has always called affectionately his “armata Brancaleone”,  in a reference to the delicious film by Mario Monicelli. Incidentally, Professor Perez, who will continue to give lessons at the Physics Institute, although he has retired from the chair of mathematical physics at the University of São Paulo (USP), simultaneously with offering up his position at FAPESP to set off on a new and challenging path, goes so far as to be funny in his effort to make explicit the recognition of his team in the right measure. He insisted, for example, that the pages of this interview should, in parallel to photos of  him, show those of his direct advisors. For editorial reasons, we could not comply, but we mention it for the record, and, in a highlight on page 17,  the citation of his assistants.

In your assessment, what is the essential difference between the FAPESP of December 1993 and the FAPESP of today?
There are two fundamental differences. The first has to do with the question of technological innovation. FAPESP has transformed itself  into an agency that also fosters technological innovation, and that is to attend to what the São Paulo Constitution determined in the reform of 1989, which defined the mission of the institution. Up until that year, the determination of 1947 prevailed, according to which FAPESP was only responsible for scientific research – in 1989, the Foundation came to be responsible for scientific and technological development. From 1993, FAPESP put technological innovation as one of its priorities. And another important characteristic, which differentiates the institution of before 1993,  in relation to what it is currently, is the fact of our having this coordinating role of an agency in the generation of new programs, in the line that was created with Genome, Biota, Tidia, Cinapce…

Instead of hearing and receiving proposals from the community, the Foundation has also started to coordinate and propose new programs.
I wouldn’t say propose so much… Each one of these projects was born within the scientific community. In an interaction with the Scientific Directorate, of course, but they are proposals that came from the community. FAPESP had a role in helping in the organization around these targets. That is the famous metaphor formulated in the book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by American anthropologists Eric Raymond and Bob Young, who identified this bazaar strategy, possible to be adopted as a form of organization. FAPESP was already a very organized agency, it had a very solid image, much consolidated within the national and international scientific community, but with a characteristic of perfection, of a cathedral. A perfect thing, but at the same time very static and little attuned, little sensitive to identifying opportunities and challenges.

It was Imre Simon (the coordinator of the Virtual Incubator and of the Tidia program) who presented me with this metaphor. Today, in parallel with the cathedral, we also have a bazaar characteristic, in the sense that we have become more attentive to the time, the needs and opportunities. I think that this characterizes the new FAPESP in these last 11 years. The book by Raymond and Young told the story of the Linux operating system, which is why Imre Simon was aware of this. He imagined that a software could only be developed with a cathedral strategy, each stone being used with a very clear idea of where it would be put. It was an essentially solitary process, but with a vision of perfection: something that, once ready, there is nothing to alter. And he was surprised with Linux, which was done with an open strategy, let’s say, of a bazaar.

When you took office, was the idea of technological innovation already present?
It was already present in the process for choosing the scientific director 11 years ago. The question was already polarizing our Board of Trustees. You have to remember what the process of indication was like: in 1993, with the departure of Professor Flávio Fava de Moraes, the board, after several discussions, meetings and proposals in lists that came from various sources, opted for inviting ten researchers for interviews.

Almost viva voces
Precisely. The question of how to fund technological innovation in companies worried the board.  And I think that one of the reasons for which I was chosen is because I took an operational proposal, compatible with the institutional mission of financing research, that is, for generating knowledge. This proposal was something that I and Professor Coutinho (Francisco Antonio Bezerra Coutinho) had already formulated four years before. Coutinho was giving periodic consultancy to the then Secretary for Science and Technology, Décio Leal de Zagottis, of the federal government, who had ministerial status. And it would always come with this concern: “How is it that we are going to solve this question of projects with companies?” After several conversations, we arrived at this conclusion, that there could be funding, provided that there was a real counterbalance from the company in these research projects. It’s the concept of matching funds, so deeply rooted in American society, where public TV works with partial financing from the government and has, theoretically, fund-raising activities with society: for each US$ 1 that the population gives, the result is the federal government putting in US$ 1.

So that was determinant for choosing you.
I think it was one of the determinant factors.  It was at the moment of the discussion of this subject that I felt there was a real chance of being indicated.  I don’t know how the others responded, but I am sure that the board realized that there was an opportunity there, that there was a clear and operationally viable response. Although it was within the law, there was a certain discomfort in the scientific community, which persists a bit until today, thinking that FAPESP was going to lose its resources to companies. But the fact that I was also a research from the basic area, with a proposal of this nature, eliminated any perception of a conflict of interests. There was another question that also polarized the board – I think that it was less serious, but it was present. It was about how the process of assessment should take place, when we entered into the funding of technological innovation. In particular, there was a questioning about our area coordinations (“what is their role?”) and whether it was a suitable form of organization for getting the best assessment. On that too, my reply was very operational, because I proposed analyzing how this process used to be done inside the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Their assessment is a bit more complicated than FAPESP’s, isn’t it?
In certain aspects, ours is better, because in the NSF they have a program director for each area and subarea. That is, they have a lot of program directors, and I think that they take the decisions in an isolated manner. In our area coordinations, it is as if we had a program management council. This makes more discussion possible.

Was there a change between the system in existence and the system of consultancy and area coordinations after your entry?
No. We did some occasional improvements, we perfected the system in many aspects, but the systematics remained the same. Sometimes, we increased the number of area coordinators, we changed the profile of each one of the coordinations. I think that the role of the assistant consultants of the Scientific Directorate was differentiated in relation to the role that they had previously. For example: the assistants, at the moment, have a larger space for discussion with the area coordinations. Previously, they used to work like a higher authority, and at the moment, when there is a discrepancy between the area coordination and the assistants, there is a greater discussion. This is good, because it makes it possible, at times, for the wealth of the reflection that was done inside the coordination to be shared with the following levels in the process. We also modified a lot the forms for assessing the projects presented to the consultants. For example: we introduced this concept of interests in the assessment.  We required the consultant to identify whether he qualified for the circumstances of potential conflict of interests with the project that he is analyzing.  I worked for many years in area coordination and sometimes discovered, a posteriori, that I had made a mistake in the choice of consultant, because there was a potential conflict of interests. It wasn’t known as such, we didn’t know it, the consultant himself didn’t know whether to regard that as impeditive or not. Formalizing this was an important step.

Did you renew all the consultants?
No. Some, I maintained, like Luiz Henrique (Lopes dos Santos), in humanities, and Rogério Meneghini, in biological sciences. The others were replaced. Hugo Armelin, who became USP’s pro-rector for research, and Fernando Galembek, from Unicamp, left. Sylvio Ferraz Mello left, and for the area of engineering I brought Alcir Monticelli (who died in August 2001). I invited Antonio Paiva for the area of health, Coutinho for exact sciences (but also concerned with the technological question), together with Luiz Nunes de Oliveira. Actually, Alcir, Coutinho and Luiz Nunes took care of the exact sciences. Luiz Henrique continued in humanities, but, before, I also had Franklin Leopoldo, who left. Later on, I brought in Paula Montero, at the time that Luiz Henrique traveled abroad. When he came back, I kept both of them on. Edgar Dutra Zanotto came in later, when Alcir left to go to the Board of  Trustees. More recently, Paiva left, and I brought in Walter Colli, in 2002. When Rogério also left, Luiz Eugênio de Moraes Mello came, in the same period. I like to joke that they make up the Incredible Army of Brancaleone of the Scientific Directorate.

Did Coutinho’s arrival have an influence on the creation of the Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE) program?
The concept of PITE was already present in the conversations with him. There was a document about the subject here in the Scientific Directorate that had been drawn up previously, but that had not yet been put into practice. We studied the document and decided to think it out again. It was a good basis for reflection, but two magic words were missing. There had to be funding for the research activity, there had to be a partnership with the university – that is, there had to be a researcher from the university presenting the proposal, besides the real counterpart.  These were the three ingredients that made PITE viable. It was Pirelli’s director of technology and an enthusiast of these partnership programs, Carmine Taralli, who made an important contribution.

I was very happy when he saw the project and said: “This is the right formula.” In reality, the previous projects of university-company partnership did not have the commitment of the company to the risk. This counterpart and the participation in the risk of the project and in its costs provide the great testimony of the company’s commitment to the process of  transferring knowledge. What there was before were vague declarations of  interest, without any meaning. We began to work on the project in 1994, and approved it in 1995. FAPESP kept it clear that what the institution finances in technological innovation is the research activity. This is FAPESP’s business. This opening for technological innovation was made, but with very great rigor, because it is this that makes it possible to establish a profile for the agency’s activity. If you take out the word “research”,  it starts financing everything that is relevant to scientific, technological and university development, you have no limit between what is and what is not fundable.

Was there distrust on the part of the company as to the university and vice-versa?
Yes, there was a lot of distrust, which continues, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the things done here in the Scientific Directorate were in order to try to contribute to a cultural change. Both from the academic point of view, like telling the researcher who wants to make technology that he needs the company, and in the business field, alerting the company to the great potential there is for them to develop, from the technological point of view, in a relationship with the university. It was all very slow. In the first year, there were eight projects, many with problems, because there wasn’t this culture of presenting projects of this nature. And the companies were very reluctant to give a counterpart. We also had to learn. In the beginning, we did not judge it suitable for any kind of supplement to the salary that the companies gave to the researchers to be regarded as a counterpart. It was purism on our part, and afterwards we revised this. Not that we were against this supplement, but it was a question that this ought not to be, shall we say, the heart of the company’s counterpart. Nowadays, we are aware that this form of counterpart is recognized not only as legitimate, but also essential for making the process viable.

See if the thing works like this: the researcher is going to develop a project, let’s say, a pigment for paint for the company. He does part of the project at the university, but is together with the company.  And then he can, as in a certain way he is working for something that is going to benefit the company,  receive, besides the salary from the university, an extra payment while he is doing that project.
Yes, like a compensation. It’s a very good stimulus; we know very well what the university salaries are like.

 But was this taken badly by the scientific community?
No, it wasn’t taken badly. There was no complaint in this regard. Now, what we wanted to happen in these projects was a virtuous circle, in which there was a generation of  knowledge – that was transferred to the company -, but that the university should get rich in this process. We didn’t want to create a space for mere consultancies. I heard a very important statement by a group from Unicamp, precisely about pigment for paint, from the company Serrana. At the end of the project, the researchers told me: “We learnt good chemistry.”  They created a pigment, transferred the knowledge to the company, the company paid royalties for this – which helps to fund the laboratory – and very categorical in saying that they had evolved with the project. In this case, there was a virtuous circle. Although these partnerships are important for the university and for the company, they resolve neither the university’s problem, of alternative sources of  funds, nor the companies’ problem, let’s say, taking leaps forward in technological development. Because the university has its own pace of work. Academic time is different from company time.

How many projects were funded under PITE?
Up until 2004, 87 projects. Oddly enough, at several moments, Coutinho thought that the program was going to end, because there were gaps in demand. But once in a while, a batch would come. And then came the projects on a larger scale, companies that began to seek in a more systematic manner this partnership with the university, like Embraer, Rhodia and Natura. It’s interesting that some of these companies, like Natura, do not want to transfer to the university the onus of doing technological innovation. They know that this relationship with the university is enriching, for keeping them informed on the frontier of knowledge in their area.

Soon after PITE came the Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE)
PIPE came as a natural consequence of this reflection. The program was thought out for the first time when Alcir Monticelli came into this room with two projects from the NSF that had been sent to him, for him to give an opinion. This is because he was the main bibliographical reference presented within these projects, which had been presented to the NSF under the line of the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research), an American program. When we saw that, we were fascinated, and we discovered that it was the object of a bill approved by the American Congress, which obliged all the federal support agencies with a budget of over US$ 100 million – and this would be the case of Fapesp – to have a program that invested about 2.5% of its budget in this modality.

It was discovery of a new path.
That was a new world opening up. It was totally complementary to PITE. There was no counterpart – because a counterpart was one of the limiting factors, small businesses had no conditions to give any. Alcir prepared our version, we discussed it, we perfected it, and we launched it in 1997, with the then Governor Mário Covas, here at FAPESP. Now, there were two kinds of objection here with us. The first was of an ideological nature: for the first time, a Brazilian research support agency was going to put money directly into companies, in what is called, in the jargon, the area of investments with a social return or without limits.

How were these resistances in the board overcome?
We explained that this was a program that is law in the United States, and in France there are similar programs. This answer, shall we say, is even a neoliberal one, that the public should not give money to the private, and it’s from the champion of economic liberalism –  – theoretically – that is the United States. In 2002, there was an investment of over US$ 2 billion in the SBIR, something monstrous. This ideological objection also ends up being overcome in the federal government, with Finep adopting the PAPPE (Support for Research in Businesses Program in the Portuguese acronym). It is a policy for technological development, The small business has an important role in this process, because of this character of flexibility and agility… Well, the other objection raised in FAPESP’s board is that this was a program only for a developed country,  that requiring from a small business a research project redounding in technological innovation of commercial value and on top of that to have a team competent to carry it out is an equation that would have as its solution universe just the empty set.

The bets were that we would have half a dozen projects presented. Imagine our surprise when we received 80 projects after the first tender. Of these 80, 20 had no research, they were of the “give me the money kind.”  But 60 were sent to two consultants, who analyzed technological research, but in an academic environment. And, to our surprise, 30 projects had two favorable opinions, or at least one forthrightly favorable and another with reservations that would not exclude support, in this strategy of stages. PIPE is brilliant as a conception. I can say that with tranquility because we copied it, it wasn’t invented here.

Dividing the project into stages seems to have been a good solution.
The conception in stages is wise, because it makes it possible to risk a bit more in stage 1, the viability study, which lasts six months, and afterwards to be stricter in stage 2, with the project being carried out. Stage 3 is for production – and then it is no longer funded by FAPESP. In 2004, we managed to get this partnership with the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), with 20 companies for stage 3, under PAPPE. I think it was an act of wisdom for Finep to understand that the project here in São Paulo would have to have different characteristics from those that would be used in other states, because they would not have PIPE. In São Paulo, PAPPE is now PIPE 3, which is product engineering, and the companies are going to be selected with criteria based on their business plan. It’s totally innovative. Something else that also worked out well, seven years afterwards, was the partnership with Sebrae and the Enterprise Endeavor Institute, because it made possible PIPE Entrepreneur. It was an important step within PIPE, this idea for companies that are very good from the technological point of view, but very deficient from the business strategy point of view, to have support of another nature. PIPE Entrepreneur is a noteworthy program, in the sense of providing for the qualification of the company, an immersion into a very practical reflection of how to achieve success as a company.

How did the physical restructuring of the state’s universities occur with the Infrastructure Program?
Infrastructure began in 1994. We reformed benches that were totally dilapidated, as well as libraries, network and telecommunications infrastructure, besides new equipment, multi-user equipment… The system of the State of São Paulo came to be very well equipped. The program was interesting because, first, we made a heavy emergency investment. At a second moment, we came to understand this problem of infrastructure in the financing of research, by measures that tried to forestall a repetition of the problem. From that point onwards, we created technical reserves. The idea is to guarantee resources – at the same time that support is given to the research project – to make viable the implantation, operation and maintenance of the equipment, things that traditionally FAPESP did not finance. The Foundation would finance the equipment and say “it’s up to you to install it, it’s up to you to maintain it.” And we know very well that, in reality, there are not always the conditions for doing this. So we started to have this additional investment. So we created the conditions for our investment to be more fertile. That was a new concept in FAPESP’s history.

How was the Public Policies Program born?
– It had a precursor, which was the Public Teaching program. The concern to do something with public teaching began very early in office, when I was provoked by some people linked to the question of teaching physics in secondary schooling: they asked me what FAPESP could do for public teaching. At that point, the idea was born to do the Public Teaching program, which was interesting because we began to have this experience of how to do programs with the community.

Who drew up the program?
Luiz Henrique had an important participation. Maria Malta Campos, from the Carlos Chagas Foundation, helped with the discussion of the program, and Marília Spósito, who came in later, had an active participation in its implementation.

And how did it evolve from there to the Public Policies Program?
The Public Teaching Support Program began in 1996. Actually, the first person to talk to me about a public policies project was Landi (Francisco Romeu Landi, then the director president), after a conversation with Covas’s  Secretary for Labor, Walter Barelli. Barelli, Landi told me, wanted to do a program on employability, and because of this I received a group from the secretariat. Afterwards, who talked a lot with them was Paula Montero, a key person in this process, back in 1998. I thought it didn’t make sense for us to launch a program just about employability, it would be very restricted. So we decided to expand it, and Public Policies was born then.

What advances has the Genome Program brought?
We have to collate objectives with results, in order to make an assessment. The objectives were: first, to do science on the frontier of knowledge. Second, to train highly qualified human resources, on a large scale and in a short time span. Third, to rally the scientific community of the state of São Paulo to study relevant problems in socioeconomic terms. Well, all these objectives were met, there is no question about it. From the scientific point of view, the quality and the impact of the publications spawning from the program provide testimony of its excellence. Furthermore, we have over 60 research laboratories that are working with techniques of genomics and genetic sequencing in the state. It has become routine. Everybody benefited from the incorporation of these techniques into the arsenal of methodological tools. Part of the human resources trained spread out into private enterprise, with the creation of at least three companies. This shows that training people to afterwards generate technological innovation in companies is a mechanism used all over the world that works here as well. Finally, the scientific community of the state of São Paulo was concerned with studying socioeconomic problems. If we look at all the genome projects that we have done, we shall see that they have relevance for agriculture, for cattle raising, for public health…

So the Genome Program has demonstrated the vigor of the capacity of research, when mobilized around clear and defined objectives.
Without a doubt. The objectives that I mentioned are clearly enunciated in the proposal submitted to the Board of  Trustees in 1997.  Now, we have had other effects that, at that moment, it was not imagined that they would occur. The visibility that the project acquired in the national and international media is something without precedents in the country’s scientific history. This was very good, because it made it clear that we have competence to do some very daring things, which succeeded in making the cover of Nature. A lot of people, when they got to know the project, thought it wasn’t going to work. This turned some sectors of the community away from the project, because of the risk of failure, which would bring consequences to the image of the participants. This Genome Program for once and for all broke the barrier that used to separate the state of São Paulo research system from society, by means of the press.

You are leaving FAPESP and getting ready to work in private enterprise. What is your first interest in this sector?
This company that I created, PP&D Technology, is going to seek to mobilize investors for the development of technological innovation arising from the vitality of our research system. That is the main focus.

What is the difference between a company like this and a venture capital fund like Votorantim Ventures, for example?
PP&D’s work is complementary. It’s different from a venture capital company. We are going to identify opportunities and offer them to the investors. PP&D intends to use my experience and that of a whole team here at FAPESP, an understanding of the whole process of  innovation,  its difficulties and its opportunities.

Are you going to continue giving lessons?
Yes, I am, at USP’s Physics Institute, although I retired at precisely the moment I offered up my post at FAPESP.

Are there people you would like to mention, important in your itinerary here at FAPESP?
There are some that I cannot fail to mention. In the genome area, I have to thank Fernando Reinach, in particular, and Andrew Simpson.  Joly (Carlos Alfredo Joly) and Vanderlei Canhos were essential for Biota. Brito (Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz) had a central role in all our ventures at FAPESP in the period, because he was the president of the Foundation and of the Board of  Trustees at the time.  Another member who gave important support on the Board was Jobson (José Jobson de Andrade Arruda), who stayed for ten years as a councilor and accompanied the whole of my career at the Scientific Directorate. This partnership with the board is fundamental, because many daring things were done that required backing. And more than that, they called for a stimulus.

What is your vision of FAPESP, thinking in the ambit of Brazilian institutions?
FAPESP has a very great responsibility, because it is a landmark. Our programs end up becoming paradigms. If we take the thematic projects, they became, in the federal ambit, Pronex Program for the Support of Excellence Centers. If we take our Cepids, they became, in the federal ambit, the Millennium Institutes. The São Paulo genome project inspired a great national genome project. Our PIPE was the benchmark for Finep’s PAPPE.  The fact that we are a regional agency, with these characteristics and a guarantee of resources, confers on the institution a very important role. It makes it possible to explore new models, to have greater daring. FAPESP is going to have growing importance.

 

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