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Isaias Raw

Isaias Raw: A battling scientist

Right from the time when he was a student at the Medical College of the University of São Paulo (FMUSP), at the end of the decade of the 1940s, Isaias Raw had lived with two types of fame: that of an adventurer and that of a fighter. By uniting these two qualifications, he transformed himself into an extraordinary educational agitator, with ideas and projects aimed at professors and students that would pass from high school to university – in this case, medicine. Up until he had his civil rights withdrawn by the military regime, by the Institutional Act No. 5, aw had been responsible for a massive movement in this sector. His nomination, in 1952, to the Brazilian Institute of Education, Science and Culture (Ibecc), freed  him to organize pioneering fairs, science clubs and museums, and to set out curriculums, teacher training courses and the production of laboratory equipment. Raw also created and led the manufacture of the famous “kits” of chemistry, electricity and biology, boxes full of experiments that could be carried out at home by everyday students.

Still during this first phase, between the years 1950 and 1969, Isaias Raw maintained a hallucinating rhythm of activities. He founded the publishing houses of the Universities of Sao Paulo and Brasilia, unified the entrance examination of the University of Sao Paulo (along with professor Walter Leser), directed the Brazilian Foundation for the Development of Science Teaching (Funbec), established the Carlos Chagas Foundation and the Experimental Medical Course at FMUSP. Throughout his time of managing programs and foundations, he continued as a researcher working in the area of biochemistry, publishing articles in specialist magazines abroad. When he had his rights revoked, he worked in Israel and in American universities. From the 1980s onwards, on returning to Brazil, Raw landed  at the Butantan Institute and helped, in a decisive manner, to transform it into the largest vaccine production center in the country, annually manufacturing 200 million doses – today he is the president of the Butantan Institute Foundation. This year he won the Conrado Wessel Award for Science and Culture, edition 2004, in the category of General Science. At 78 years of age, married with three sons split between the United States and Israel, and with three grandchildren, he laughs when he reliazes the amount of information that he emptied upon his interviewers: “I know that it’s impossible to fit inside a single interview a life of 65 years, talking about the garage laboratory, about activities, where I had lots of fun doing science”.

How did you become interested in scientific education?
I began by stimulating observation in experimental analysis, creating a science fair in Sao Paulo during the decade of the 1950s. The idea was to occupy a room at the Prestes Maia Gallery with an exhibition every three or four months. The science fair, at that time, was a form of stimulating young people to carry out and to present their work. Afterwards I invented the idea of taking ten selected students, from high school, to a meeting of the SBPC [Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science] and they presented themselves as if they were researchers who were showing off their results. The idea also began in the 50s because their existed an organization called the Brazilian Institute of Education, Science and Culture, namely the IBECC. It was a translation of the name UNESCO and had been representing that organization in Brazil.

The objective was to attract young people to science from an early age?
If we hadn’t attracted the young, equivalent at that time to high school pupils, to direct themselves towards a scientific career, we would already have lost them. You need to start very early. We set up ten or twenty young students selected by us to carry out experiments – we built our apparatus, for example, with a lathe that came from the Polytechnic School at the time when it didn’t have a motor, it had a pedal, and went about the experiment. But quickly it became clear to me that twenty people were not going to change Brazil. We had to find another way of multiplying this process. And this process was the science club – that was rediscovered many years later, in Rio de Janeiro, by the biochemist Leopoldo de Meis, from UFRJ [the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro]. The problem is that our clubs were very modest in terms of number. I thought that, instead of investing in the formation of an elite, we should intervene in the secondary schools and start on the mass use of kits and mini-kits in chemistry, electricity and biology.

How did the science kits come about?
I had a laboratory in the backyard of my house. At that time one could buy acid at the corner, at the hardware store. I had the idea of carrying out something more organized, that people could buy – a packet of material, with reagents and whatever was necessary for working at home, something that could be closes and stored. This had already existed in Germany during the 1930s. I made a box, in reality a wooden box with a handle. From there the idea of the chemistry, electricity and biology kits came about and even one for mathematics.

You yourself planned out the kits, but who would finance their manufacture?
We made them at the School of Medicine, first on the 4th floor, and then afterwards we occupied the garage. When Ulhôa Cintra was the rector of USP, from 1960 until1963, we had the use of a large shed at University City and everything then became industrialized. We reached some 650 workers. When I left the project, the publisher Editora Abril agreed to do it commercially. Initially we received a donation from the Rockefeller Foundation, and shortly afterwards, from the Ford Foundation. Then I went to the Ministry of Education and sold the idea to Anísio Teixeira, a brilliant educator. Every fifteen days I went there to talk. The problem was that Anísio wasn’t a scientist, but a philosopher. Everything that he said one week, he would say the exact opposite fifteen days later with the same tranquility.

Which is a serious defect, by the by…
No it’s not, because it was a logical conversation, connected. Anísio Teixeira was the first person who conceived of the school as it should be: public, free and universal.

You were manufacturing kits and carrying out research at the same time?
At the same time. I researched in biochemistry. The focus of research was changing. Before genomics, the important thing was to understand metabolism and the enzyme. At that time the great promise was that, if one new the difference between, let’s say, man and a parasite, you were then capable of identifying a drug that would inhibit the enzyme of the parasite, which differs from that of man, and the illness would be curable. It was at that moment that biochemistry began to be investigated. I began with the Tripanossoma cruzi when I was a student during the decade of the 1940s. I saw that that area of knowledge was empty and I began working in it.

How did you come to end up at the Chemistry Institute?
There had been the necessity of creating a critical mass, with people from all areas talking and exchanging ideas. The Medical Faculty has been very closed and had not allowed the contraction of non-medical professionals. Then came the idea, still back in the time of Ulhôa Cintra, that we would get the Biochemical Department, which I had been heading, put it on a truck and take it to the Chemistry Institute, whose building had not even been completely built. The Medical Faculty reacted extremely badly to this idea. But, it was this action that led to the creation, in practice, of USP. Up until that point the university had only been a condominium. Even though it had been already implemented, University City was a condominium, the faculties were isolated and people didn’t speak to each other. Rector Cintra covered for me on that occasion. He ordered the construction of the Chemistry Institute, which was directly linked to the Faculty of Philosophy, Science and Letters. After I had moved there, with time, I moved the pharmacy, practically intact, and the others. There had been a clear evolution of the university after these changes.

Did you personally always want to be a researcher?
I entered into the college definitely interested in carrying out research, not in becoming a medical doctor. The Medical College was one of the few places where there was full time employment, laboratories and which allowed research. I had an uncle who was a doctor “of the masses”, who attended to a thousand people per month. He had some pharmaceutical chemistry books that had interested me. My interest and desire to research came about almost by spontaneous generation.

But it was starting from this reading material that your enthusiasm grew, was it not?
Yes. From some books, one especially about Louis Pasteur, which became obsolete, obviously, nobody had discovered a bit of anything at that time. But, it was a very good book that told of the story of Pasteur, who was another person who sprung forward almost by accident. All of 19th century science came about in this manner, someone who became interested in something and went about doing it. Pasteur invented a model, which I believe is the model that I tried to resurrect at the Butantan. Pasteur, which says, “I’m going to carry out research, make developments, produce the product, earn money and finance my research”.

Your path as a researcher isn’t very conventional. Do you agree?
I’m going to tell you something: I’ve had a lot of fun in my lifetime. I went to only a few lectures at the Medical School. Do you know why? Because they were always the same lectures. Nothing changed. And you can, in half the time, read a serious book and learn more than when listening to a professor at times not very competent. My major problem was to know what material had been given, so that I could then study for the exam. Looking at the notebooks of my front row colleagues, who filled in pages and pages, I discovered that he hadn’t reached the conclusion concerning the lecture theme. That is to say, this person, no matter how he studied that damned notebook of his, couldn’t get a satisfactory exam mark because he didn’t have the overall view of what had been taught.

In 1964 you were imprisoned accused of subversion. How was that episode?
I was taken into custody as a potentially dangerous criminal. Twenty-five soldiers came to get me at eleven o’ clock at night when I was entering my home. It was a terrible moment because, at that time, my mother-in-law was dying and my three children were very small. And there was something very, very serious: how does one explain to your three small children that the police are wrong and you’re right? This doesn’t exist. There is no explanation.

Had you participated in left wing organizations?
No. Once the old TV Record broadcast the idea that I was the head of a communist cell that got together in Washington. What happened was that the science teaching program, of which I had been the head, was taken over by UNESCO, which had considerable interest in this issue. Over a period of time there were a number of international meetings funded by PAHO [the Pan-American Health Organization] to review the teaching of physics, chemistry and biology, and by chance some of them were held in Washington, at the end of the decade of the 50s. And I was the common denominator, because Funbec [the Brazilian Foundation for the Development of Science Teaching], which I directed, had worked in all of these areas.

How did you lose your civil rights?
In 1969 things were different. When they released me in 1964 my life continued normally. I took the public test for becoming a chaired professor, although they tried to stop me, I assumed my post and continued working. In 1969 I got retired by the AI-5 [Institutional Act No. 5]. However, between 1964 and 1969 a number of things had happened. The IBECC had become Funbec, a very important foundation, not only for teaching science – it was the first industry involved with medical electronics. In Brazil nobody had medical equipment. You could only carry out am electrocardiogram exam when the doctor had imported, at his own cost, an electrocardiogram machine. Monitor, defibrillator? We had none of these. I also had been deeply involved in unifying the university entrance exam, which had been carried out by the Carlos Chagas Foundation.

Was this the time when you yourself were the president of the Carlos Chagas Foundation?
Yes. There had been a complete complex related to education and to the teaching of science that had functioned harmoniously. In truth, this had represented power. In 1969 I held total power and I was not submissive. I was a pawn that had to be removed from the game.

Once retired, what did you do?

I left Brazil. First, I went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in Israel. They had been after me for some time because of my experience in the teaching of science. But things didn’t work out. Independently from the language problem which wasn’t easy, it’s very difficult to interfere in the educational system of another country if you are a foreigner. There’s no way to do it.

And from there where did you go?
First, I went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in the United States. Life there was turbulent because I had landed there and was without my research team. Research is not an individual activity, but that of a group that works harmoniously. So I thought, I’ll do something that I know, which is working with the teaching of science. It was a business that we had started in Brazil, where we were pioneers. In the United States, they said the following: the teaching of science is extremely serious to be left in the hands of a professor. It’s the scientific community that has to say where science is going. At the MIT they had something similar to Funbec and we began a project that went on to have a very large impact and was the reverse of what we did in Brazil: how do you go about teaching science for those who don’t want to learn science? So, we invented a project. As the American is crazy to know what he is eating, we decided that each student would group together everything that he would eat in a day in a single bag: Coca-cola, hamburger, everything. And afterwards we spend half a year analyzing, with methodology, what he had eaten on that day. This program had a huge impact and put me on the cover of the magazine Chemical News, which at that time was brutal prestige. This work ended up in a book, published in 1972.

How long did you stay at MIT?
Four years. When the program died out, I was invited to go to the Public Health School of Harvard University, within the Nutrition Department. There I entered into another project that was very important at that time and today has again gained importance. Recently an analysis of the medical schools was carried out, looking at the innovations within medical teaching, and who won fist place? Londrina. What does Londrina do? To a certain extent it’s repeating the Experimental Medical Course that was carried out in 1969 at the USP campus. During that time there were two ideas in the game: bring a medical course to the USP and innovate. The idea was not to repeat the same old thing. Then we  managed to gain approval from the school congregation for the experimental course, which had prepared the students for studying scientific medicine.

What was the concept behind the Experimental Medical Course?
To finish with the separation of disciplines and to attempt to integrate basic and clinical science as well as social medicine right from the first day of the course. Medical course subjects are totally artificial because they have grown beyond their own limits. As well there was a second objective: at that time 40% of the medical course revolved around descriptive anatomy in the same manner as had been taught in the 18th century. Naturally, today this has changed. Our idea was to mix up medicine right in the first year with the material involved in basic science. We, the professors who gave the course, got together once a week to decide upon what we would be teaching. “Today I have to teach the cytology of the liver, you talk about mitochondria…” It worked so well that during the first year when we opened, the eighty best students chose the Experimental Course. But, as soon as I left it lasted a further year and then the faculty closed down the course.

After very successful experiences in the United States, why did you return to Brazil?
Because the American research system was perverted. It stopped being a more or less permanent structure to becoming one with a few talented genius leaders who carried out research and an army of slaves who worked seven days per week, eighteen hours per day. When the scholarship ends, if the researcher wanted to be with his family, to have fewer working hours, a more decent salary, then he has to leave. The researcher is temporary. Carrying out research is no longer a permanent activity for anybody, except the 1% who are at the top. The remaining are an army of slaves. This occurs because of the powerful machine that they have set up there, because of the quantity of money existing. Nowadays, nobody interferes in research, liberty is total. The problem is that there is a structure in which one has to work a lot, to be very good and to chase after a scholarship in order to remain in the same place. This is impersonal, totally impersonal.

Having come back to Brazil, what did you do with your life?
I tried to get back into Funbec, but the process had also got twisted, in a different manner. They were without good administration and had lost their innovation. After one or two years the opportunity came up to join the Butantan Institute and to start from zero. At that time, when I began in the decade of the 1980s, there was no permeability between the Butantan Institute and USP and the institute didn’t do any research or have any students. At that moment, Willi Beçak was the institution’s director and he asked for the hiring of ten university professors. I had already retired and had not returned to the Chemistry Institute for two reasons. The first was the condition of Amnesty given by the military. The idea was to forgive and not to reintegrate. I would have had to sign a document saying that I accepted the pardon and I didn’t accept the pardon of anyone. The second reason was that I had left five excellent professors there who no longer were in need of me – they were better than I was. The best known are Walter Colli, who today is also an assistant assessor to FAPESP’s scientific director, and Ricardo Brentani, the director of the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute and the director president of FAPESP.

The Butantan Institute began to be rebuilt under these ten professors?
Yes. I entered into a different area from the others because I had previously managed to get Finep [the Financier of Studies and Projects] to give me a little money to carry out biotechnology research at Funbec. The only thing was that there the conditions no longer existed. When I came here things changed. Our world fell apart in 1985 when the small amount of anti-ophidian serum that the institute made was tested in a central quality control laboratory, in Rio de Janeiro, and it was discovered that it was inactive. So Brazil didn’t have any serum. At this point I had already been attempting to solve the problem within the institute. This began to open up doorways and we went on rebuilding installations and purchasing equipment with the help of the federal government. From FAPESP we got a lot of help with individual grants for the researchers.

But how did the institute turn itself into a major center for the production of vaccines?
The budget for manufacturing immune-biological vaccines had been zero. The state government wouldn’t consciously finance the production of a vaccine. If before there was zero and today we produce 200 million doses of vaccine, from where did the money come? We had to create a structure where this money was self-feeding. This was a major part of the problem. The other was developing the technology. The university researcher imagines that he is developing technology. In truth, he is developing an idea that will be banked. The researcher is always dreaming about something that even in first world countries takes lots of years. In the area of medicine and vaccines it can take ten years after the product has been established to reach the market. Another fundamental concept is that, if you don’t make the product appear on the shelves, you have done nothing. That is to say, the measure of technology is not the published work, much less the internal discussion. If you don’t have a product you have done little from the industrial point of view. And further, if in one of the public institutions this product is not for society as a whole, you are not carrying out public health. In order to be within public health, the product must have a cost that the country can support. There is a further problem: in Brazil, the American idea is accepted that if the scientist shares in the profits he has a greater interest in creating technology.

Is this not true?
It could well be. The situation is such that, if it were this way, nobody would do anything  unless they had the prospect of a profit. You would kill research. It’s not possible to imagine that the solution to all problems passes through a company’s profit margin. I believe that Brazil, in this area of public health, is on the opposite side of these ideas.

Why?
There has been considerable evolution in technology, in the control of quality, in the manufacture of such a product as a vaccine. When we discovered that we didn’t have good serum here and that it wasn’t possible to import as it wouldn’t have been made from venom extracted from Brazilian snakes, a self sufficiency program was established. This program was set up for a state monopoly. When a public institution manufactures a vaccine, the government buys it without questioning, without entering into a bid. Clearly, the government pays the lowest possible price and even holds back payment, as well. Frequently I have had to buy raw material up front before the official government request in order to gain time for producing the vaccine. At this moment, we owe US$ 30 million used in the manufacture of the recent cold vaccine.

Is this the same for all vaccines?
No. The others we also manufacture, but we always have to have money. We’ve created a structure that is public, but it can’t be public, because if it were to be public, in stricto sensu, when the money returns, it would go back to the treasury and disappear. The government thinks – because of the regulations and not especially because of the vaccine – that, if it is financing the institution, and if there is profit, it’s natural that it goes to the Treasury. The drama is that there the money disappears and is not re-invested in the institute.

The money never remains at the Butantan?
No, no. The Institute can have this money, but assuming that the government doesn’t see it. If it sees the money, the following day it’s collected by the Treasury. It’s a question of legislation. Even the first major financial assistances that the Ministry of Health granted us disappeared into the Treasury. The State Health Secretariat and the Butantan received nothing. One needs to be pretty dumb to invent a law of this type. The budget is made up at least a year, if not two, beforehand, then if extra money should come along it’s as if the government would say: “There’s nothing forecast in my budget, therefore I can’t accept this money”. It’s completely schizophrenic. So, the Butantan Institute Foundation, set up in 1985, solved this problem. The Foundation operates like a private company, but in a manner that is much more flexible.

In spite of moving in the opposite direction, this appears to be the correct pathway…
I think it is. Within the current economic model we’re moving in the opposite direction. What country freely gives out medicine for AIDS? Brazil has created a structure that allows for the manufacture of a product that is needed by public health at a price that the country can afford. Here at the Butantan Institute Foundation I look after the price more than the Ministry of Health. We’re testing a way of using a fifth of the cold vaccine dose for next year, which will allow us, with the same amount of money, to lower the free vaccination age to fifty and older. Today we freely vaccinate the sixty and over. Also, with FAPESP’s help, we have developed the surfactant for protecting premature children. The government is going to distribute it to all public maternity units for free. This is because we’ve managed to master the technology for manufacturing at a very low cost. Brazil is the only country in Latin America that produces free public vaccines.

Therefore, innovation has become essential within this process?
Without a doubt. And in order to have innovation we need the researcher to carry out basic research. The relationship between basic research and applied research is fundamental. Industry tells the story that it invents everything. Listen, who does the inventing is the US government, the British government, the French government and not private enterprise. And in order to receive public money you need a structure that works to carry out research, something that private industry doesn’t have. The world is not going to be more social or socialist, but it needs to be socially responsible in some manner. Social relevance has been exchanged for philanthropy – an American conception of the type “I built a railroad, I became rich, now I’m going to set up a museum as well”.

Do we need a new model?
I believe so. I wouldn’t say that the old Pasteur model is a good model, but it works. I have 25 doctorate researchers here and they have the right to do the research that they want to do, assuming that they spend part of their time working on what was have defined as priority. The researcher ends up discovering that he can do just as good research working on the Butantan’s priorities than those of his own ideas.

As a defender of genetically modified foods, what did you think when, in May, you read the Monsanto study relating to abnormalities in the kidneys and blood of rats fed on transgenic corn?
How many people have not died from hunger because of transgenic corn? How many people can now obtain food, even to becoming obese, stupidly obese, because food stopped being of importance? What is incorrect is to hide the results. What is happening is that now in the United States clinical testing has to be registered – which is not the case of the transgenics. Afterwards, if things don’t work out, the results can’t be hidden.

Do you believe that there’s a risk of reneging on the Biosafety Law after the procurator general of the republic, Claudio Fontelles, took out an action against the law as being unconstitutional?
Difficult to say. Even in the United States, a country theoretically more rational, is not president Bush attempting to put into the heads of Americans what he thinks from his own religious point of view It’s very complicated. And this is not a problem of public opinion. In the United States it’s a catastrophe because the importance of science is not well understood.

Why is this happening?
I made a huge effort in my life in favor of scientific education, rational. Today the teaching of science is make believe. There is even the mixing of the concept of the word “research” with “search it on the computer”. This idea of “research on the internet” is not about discovering something new, but only about believing that what appears on the screen is itself true. To learn is not to acquire information. Obviously, if there is no information things can’t be made nor can the world be understood. But, if you don’t have the capacity of critical analysis what is false becomes true, brutally complicating things. And, the vast majority of people don’t have this capacity.