FAPESP Week Germany recognizing the closer ties between FAPESP and the Max Planck Society
For the first time, Germany will host FAPESP Week, a symposium organized by the Foundation to publicize in other countries the scientific work being done in São Paulo and to foster international collaboration; these events have already been held in the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, the United States and Canada. The symposium will take place in October in Munich and will last four days, with presentations by researchers from both countries. The preparation of the event recognizes the closer ties between FAPESP and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, Germany’s leading organization for basic research. The Society’s headquarters are in Munich, the capital of Bavaria.
Representatives from both institutions will discuss the terms of a possible cooperation agreement that will strengthen the ties that already exist between researchers from Germany and those in the state of São Paulo. The event will open new doors for collaborative research. In addition, the representatives will promote exchanges of researchers and students. “There is considerable potential for collaboration and we hope to be able to turn this potential into joint research projects,” says Andreas Trepte, the head of the Max Planck Society office in Buenos Aires, which is in charge of relations with Latin America. “The topics for collaboration may range from climate research in the Amazon and tropical diseases to new materials or biopharmacological products,” Trepte says.
The Max Planck Society brings together 82 research institutions, 76 of which are in Germany. They conduct research that ranges from humanities to evolutionary biology, from plasma physics to artificial intelligence. More than 22,000 people are involved, and the annual budget is roughly R$5 billion, obtained through German state and federal funding. Seventeen researchers affiliated with the institution have already been awarded the Nobel Prize.
The position of Brazilian science in its relations with the Max Planck Society is rather minor. Among the countries of Latin America, Brazil ranks behind Mexico in terms of the number of Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers that the institutions host. There are 105 Brazilian researchers—fewer than the approximately 120 from Mexico. “We have about 450 researchers from Latin America. This is about the same number of researchers as come from North America, but well below the level of Asian countries, with 800 Chinese and 700 Indian researchers.” Brazil ranks first if direct partnerships between researchers from the two countries are included, cases in which there is little institutional involvement. If collaborative projects are included (projects that actually have researchers from both sides working together and sharing laboratories and equipment), the leader in Latin America is Argentina, which even hosts an institute that results from a partnership between the Max Planck Society and the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET): the Biomedicine Research Institute, in Buenos Aires.
The Argentine institute is headed by Eduardo Arzt, who was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich; Arzt is also an external member of the Max Planck Society. The scientific proximity with Argentina and the institutional support that the partner institute receives from CONICET was the reason why the Max Planck Society chose Buenos Aires as the site for one of the two cooperation offices that it maintains outside Germany; the other is in Brussels, for liaison with European institutions. Trepte, who has a degree in Latin American studies and a Ph.D. in economics, has been at the Max Planck Society since the two Germanys were reunified, when he assisted in setting up 20 new institutes in cities of the former East Germany and was appointed to the position in Buenos Aires. “We seek to establish the same level of cooperation that we have with Argentina with other countries of Latin America,” Trepte states. “In view of the importance of the scientific work that is carried out in Germany and São Paulo, cooperation still falls short of possibilities.”
Trepte observes that the requirement for cooperation to flourish is that high-level scientists from Germany and Brazil, working on topics that are at the cutting edge of knowledge, accept each other as partners and learn to work together. The fundamental principle of the Max Planck Society is the so-called Harnack principle, a reference to a rule adopted by Adolf von Harnack, the first president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Society; it entails inviting the brightest minds to work on interdisciplinary subjects and giving them freedom and ideal working conditions. Once appointed, the heads of the departments or research groups of the institutes do not follow a curriculum or research program determined by the organization; instead, they rely on their own intuition, which encourages them to produce original knowledge. “We monitor the direction in which the cutting edge of knowledge is headed, but the decision to invest in these areas within the Max Planck institutes depends on identifying high-level researchers capable of rising to this challenge, regardless of their nationality,” he notes. “To bring scientists from Brazil and Germany closer together at this level, catalyzing events, such as FAPESP Week, will be fundamental,” Trepte says.
One of the first steps, according to Trepte, is to identify areas in which to initiate collaborative projects. “In one possible example, we could bring together specialists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin and researchers from the Butantan Institute in São Paulo to work together and coordinate research groups to find a new tuberculosis vaccine. Or we could encourage collaboration between groups from both countries that are studying new materials and share common interests,” Trepte explains. Since 2009, the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry has been collaborating with the National Institute for Amazonian Research (Inpa) to build a 320-meter tower in a program that will study the Amazon Forest’s role in the global carbon cycle.
Trepte considers it important to sign a cooperation agreement between the Max Planck Society and FAPESP. “Our experiences with countries in Latin America show that the lack of legal instruments is one of the main obstacles to organizing partnership opportunities,” Andreas Trepte says. In Germany, FAPESP already has agreements with scientists who receive support from or are connected with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)—German Research Foundation—and the State Ministry of Sciences, Research and Arts of the Free State of Bavaria.
Harmonizing the interests of FAPESP and those of the Max Planck Society involves some challenges, Trepte says. “There is a huge difference between the science, technology and innovation systems of Brazil and Germany,” he says. In Germany, half the public sector research capacity is in universities, while the other half is in research institutions with established goals. The Max Planck institutes carry out basic research, the Fraunhofer Society has about 70 applied research institutes and the Helmholtz Association of Research Centers maintains laboratories for strategic topics. “This structure has no parallel in the countries with which we have agreements. That is why it is important for us to hold events at which the two systems come into contact, so that we can bring the best researchers together,” he observes.
The presence of researchers from outside Germany in the Max Planck institutes is a key factor in the research capacity of these institutions. “The Max Planck Society has 62 schools: the International Max Planck Research Schools that recruit their Ph.D. students abroad and accept only the best. More than half of them are not German,” Trepte notes. “At the post-doctorate level, more than 80% come from other countries. The majority of positions are publicized internationally through announcements in journals such as ScienceandNature and well-known web sites. Recruiting is based on quality, not the applicant’s country of origin. There is room for us to have more Brazilians in our institutes and more scientists from the Max Planck institutes collaborating in Europe with Brazilian laboratories,” he says.
Trepte observes that there are other opportunities for partnerships: On the one hand, there are the partner research groups of the Max Planck Society. Spread over a number of countries, they are headed by researchers who have worked at Max Planck institutes and have returned to their home countries. “These groups receive local funding and funding from the Max Planck Society for five years. This means that they are able to repatriate these researchers and still maintain the link with the institute in Germany,” Trepte says. On the other hand, there are independent Max Planck research groups that are set up in cooperation with a local partner in highly innovative fields; their leaders are recruited through international requests for proposals. “The idea is to give the most talented young researchers the opportunity to head up a research project for which they are completely responsible, and thereby develop scientists with international reputations, able to administer research in the future.”
Many scientists from the Max Planck Institute are extremely interested in working with Latin American students and researchers because they are seen as highly creative. “They are able to work under conditions that are far from ideal. They are very adept at improvising. I had a meeting with researchers who are coordinating the research schools and hosting young researchers in our institutes. I asked them if they would like to host more Latin Americans and they replied: Of course, but there are few applicants,” he explains. As head of the Latin America office, Trepte often heard researchers say that working in Germany would be difficult because of the language. “I always answer that English is the primary language in all fields except for the humanities.” He points out that having a connection with the Max Planck Society is a respectable credential. “We are one of the most important basic research institutions on the international level. Among institutions with the largest number of highly quoted articles, the Max Planck Society ranks second only behind Harvard University. Anyone who has partnerships with us benefits from this,” he says.