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The age of reason

The fruit of Biota-FAPESP are shared among universities and become perennial

FABRÍCIO MARQUES | ED. 139 | SEPTEMBER 2007

 

The fruit of the Biota-FAPESP program are abundant. Since it was created in 1999, the Program of Research into the Characterization, Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity in the State of São Paulo has made it possible to describe more than 500 species of plants and animals spread over the state’s 250 thousand sq. km; it has produced 75 research projects, 150 master’s degrees and 90 doctorates, besides giving rise to 500 articles in 170 periodicals, 16 books and two atlases, thanks to an average yearly investment by FAPESP of US$ 2.5 million. The fruit of Biota has matured to the point of elevating the program to a new phase. An academic cooperation agreement signed in August will guarantee that the initiative will be long lasting, by linking its structure to three São Paulo state universities. Henceforth, they will become responsible for the maintenance of the research tools of Biota, regarded as one of the greatest biodiversity study programs ever carried out in the world. “It is time to perform the maintenance routine – such as generating back-ups and upgrading software programs – of everything that has been done and this task is not FAPESP’s, because it is not a research task”, said Carlos Alfredo Joly, mentor and former Biota coordinator, head professor of the Department of Botany/ IB and coordinator of the Environment and Society doctoral program at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Over the last eight years, the administration of Biota-FAPESP has depended on a commission of researchers operating on a piecemeal basis, with no permanent structure for events, publications or the updating of databases. Each one of these activities demands a request for specific funds. Thanks to the program’s institutionalization, these activities will become stronger. Unicamp and Cenapad (the National Center for High Performance Processing), for instance, will be responsible for the program’s web page, for SinBiota (the Biota Environmental Information System) and for the Biota Neotropica electronic journal. Their responsibilities will range from the physical structure to the payment of staff to do the maintenance and updating of the databases and software programs. The SinBiota platform relates the information generated by the researchers to a digital cartographic base, which enables the dissemination of information about biodiversity in the state of Sao Paulo. The virtual tool has records of some 56 thousand species found in São Paulo (44 thousand land-based life forms, 8 thousand salt-water life forms and 4 thousand of fresh water life forms). The journal Biota Neotropica, an electronic periodical edited by Biota – FAPESP, publishes the results of the research that focuses on the characterization, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the neotropical region and it is already reaching one thousand users a day.

Pharmaceuticals
As for Unesp (the State University of São Paulo), it will be responsible for the database and extracts of BIOprospecTA, the Biota Network of Bioprospection and Biotrials. A building will be constructed at the Chemical Institute in Araraquara (state of São Paulo) to house this collection, part of which, due its potential economic interest, will be open to registered researchers. BIOprospecTA was born out of a Biota subprogram centered on the development of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and agricultural pesticides from vegetable extracts or molecules of plants and animals found in São Paulo. USP (the University of São Paulo), through units such as the Physics Institute, in São Carlos, the School of Medicine, the Biomedical Sciences Institute or the Chemistry Institute, in São Paulo, will be in charge of the clinical trials of the laboratory synthesized molecules derived from the BIOprospecTA base. The costs of the program’s administrative office and of the journal Biota Neotropica will be split between Unicamp and USP. “The estimate is that this institutionalization will require US$ 4 million over the next eight years, to cover salaries for staff and systems analysts, the renovation of the database storage infrastructure and other expenses”, says Joly.

For Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, the institutionalization will allow the program to move forward under its own steam. “It’s as if Biota were a FAPESP spin-off. We expect that this will expand the program’s reach and that its impact upon public policies will become even greater”, he stated. Brito Cruz also recalled that Joly’s participation is fundamental for Biota’s success. “The scientific community’s capacity to articulate itself around the biodiversity theme is outstanding, but an undertaking of this magnitude, even though it is a collective effort, can only take off through the heroic actions of some individuals who have a spirit of leadership. So it is important to highlight the work of professor Joly as the program goes ahead”, he stated. Joly reminds us, however, that FAPESP aid will continue to be fundamental whenever it becomes necessary to develop new tools for Biota. “Of course we will continue to look for innovation and we will present new research projects to FAPESP in order to develop the tools for Biota’s future”, he says.

The ceremony that defined the institutionalization of the Biota-FAPESP program was attended by Michel Loreau, from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, the vice-president of the executive committee of Imoseb (the International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity), recently created to organize and synthesize scientific knowledge about biodiversity and supply information to governments and public policy makers in this area, specially the Convention on Biological Diversity. Loreau had a good piece of news: one day before, he had met representatives of the ministry of the Environment and of Science and Technology at FAPESP and they had agreed to consult the scientific community in the country concerning the terms under which Brazil might take part in Imoseb.

The decision represented a sharp turn in the country’s position on this theme. Two years ago, Brazilian diplomacy turned down an invitation to have Brazilian scientists join Imoseb, fearing that the country’s vulnerability where the care of its biodiversity is concerned might weaken it in other multilateral negotiations. However, the Brazilian government will only be part of the Imoseb process if its participation occurs within the scope of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the main world forum for defining laws and policies that concern biodiversity issues. “There is a lot of interest in helping to promote public policies internationally, but there is a fear that one more mechanism will be created, given that CBD already exists and is unable to implement its decisions”, stated Bráulio Dias, manager of Biodiversity Conservation at the Ministry of the Environment. The Biota/FAPESP Program’s researchers celebrated this change in the government’s position and are striving to take part in the structuring of the process to consult Brazil’s scientific community. “It’s indispensable for the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and for SBPC to take part in organizing this consultation”, states Joly.


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