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Laboratories

Fragmented efforts

IPEA study indicates Brazil’s research infrastructure has benefited from recent but unsystematic investment

030-034_Infraestrut Pesquisa_232-01A pioneering survey regarding the status of Brazil’s research infrastructure has been conducted by the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) and is scheduled to be published in book form later in 2015.  According to the survey, which analyzed a sampling of 1,760 laboratories all over Brazil, there is widespread dissemination of modest-sized facilities and a scarcity of large laboratories designed for multiple users or tailored to ambitious challenges.  These facilities employ a total of 7,090 researchers, an average of only four individuals per laboratory.  Forty-six percent of the laboratories reported that their equipment cost a total of less than R$250,000.  Only 5% stated assets of more than R$5 million.

But don’t think that the structure is old-fashioned or ready to be scrapped.  Most of the laboratories (56.7%) began operations in the 2000s.  “The data are related to a recent investment cycle,” says research coordinator Fernanda de Negri, referring to the sectoral funds for science and technology established in 1999.  One of them, CT-Infra, gave rise to the Proinfra program, headed up by the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP), which from 2003 to 2011 invested R$2 billion in building laboratories and installing equipment.  The laboratories have been updated over time though.  More than 70% of them reported having received investments within the last five years, with a third having investments made within the last year.

“What we are facing is a problem of scale,” says Negri.  “Investment in laboratories has been quite haphazard, meeting only the demand from the universities themselves.  I’ve heard university professors saying ‘there was a competitive opening and a new PhD came in.  We need to build him a laboratory,’” says the researcher, who is assigned to the IPEA Office of Sectoral Studies, Innovation Policies, Regulation and Infrastructure. She believes the excessively unsystematic approach presents a problem for the future of research in Brazil.  “Public policies need to focus on building large research facilities.  We’re sending a growing number of PhD students and post-docs abroad and when they come back, they need large laboratories in order to continue to conduct cutting-edge research.  With few exceptions, that is not the case today,” she says.

Brazilian Syncrotron Light Laboratory in Campinas: building a new source

Eduardo Cesar Brazilian Syncrotron Light Laboratory in Campinas: building a new sourceEduardo Cesar

The basic premise of IPEA’s study is that good infrastructure is a determining factor for generating knowledge and innovation.  Among the references analyzed are the 40 national laboratories in the United States.  These are bodies that operate under the notion of big science, with numerous teams, extensive budgets and robust facilities that are prepared to face the challenges of research at the cutting edge of science.  In 2012, their budget stood at US$17.5 billion.

The sample studied by IPEA researchers focused on the fields of engineering, exact and earth sciences, and agricultural, biological and health sciences.  Institutions with the largest number of laboratories assessed were the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa), the University of São Paulo (USP), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the University of Campinas (Unicamp).  Facilities aimed at the human and social sciences, yet still called laboratories, were not considered since the larger portion of their investments involved staff rather than infrastructure.  The regional concentration is noteworthy, with 57% of the laboratories located in the Southeast and 23% in the South.  Just 13% of institution directors ranked their facilities as “advanced and compatible with the best laboratories found outside Brazil,” while 22% considered them “advanced according to Brazilian standards, but lacking when compared to foreign facilities.”  Many laboratories (69%) operate as service providers but that activity is sporadic.  What more than 80% of them do, on an ongoing basis, is conduct scientific research.  Fewer than 20% opened their doors to researchers from companies in 2012.  The principal funding sources mentioned, according to volume of funds, were Petrobras, FINEP and the state research support foundations (FAPs).

National Institute for Space Research Integration and Testing Laboratory in São José dos Campos: an area of over 14,000 square meters

LÉO RAMOS National Institute for Space Research Integration and Testing Laboratory in São José dos Campos: an area of over 14,000 square metersLÉO RAMOS

Brazil’s financial crisis and the fiscal adjustment by the government portend no budget increases for large research facilities.  The preliminary results of the survey inspired the 2014 design of the National Knowledge Platform program, launched by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation  (MCTI), still in its infancy (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 222), “To increase its slice of the funding pie, science would need to show society more solid results. And this is hard to do with the current scattershot allocation of funds,” notes Fernanda de Negri. According to physicist Antonio José Roque da Silva, USP professor and director of the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), under the aegis of the MCTI, there are no objections to investing in large and small laboratories, although funds for infrastructure are limited. “Research studies require laboratories of varying scales that are able to complement each other,” he says. “We can talk about three scales: small laboratories that are pretty much individual or belong to just a few groups; medium-sized and multi-user laboratories that serve universities and regions; and large-scale facilities such as synchrotrons or neutron sources for complex work.” He says that decisions regarding investments in large laboratories depend on each individual country’s financial capacity and strategy.

Silva is currently heading up another challenge: the construction of a new synchrotron light source, named Sirius, that will be one of the world’s first fourth-generation facilities of its kind, requiring R$1.3 billion in funding.  It will open up new perspectives for studying the atomic structure of materials. The expectation is that the first light beams will begin to operate in 2018.  “For now, everything is on schedule,” he says, having received news that the project is considered to be a priority.

Central Laboratory for High-Performance Technologies (LaCTAD), at Unicamp: multi-user equipment housed at a single address

Eduardo Cesar Central Laboratory for High-Performance Technologies (LaCTAD), at Unicamp: multi-user equipment housed at a single addressEduardo Cesar

The LNLS operates according to a model that is similar to the national laboratories in the United States: the government owns the laboratories, which are operated not by government employees, but by an independent organization that has flexibility in planning, hiring and firing.  This model is also used in Europe, in synchrotron light sources such as France’s Soleil, and the United Kingdom’s Diamond. Another similarity to US national laboratories is that the LNLS has attracted other facilities to the area around its accelerator, designed for conducting research on biofuels, nanotechnology and bioscience, which can take advantage of the research structure and work synergistically.  “When the US government launched its nanotechnology program, the five Department of Energy centers were installed in national laboratories,” Silva says.

Another project given priority status by the federal government is the expansion of the Integration and Testing Laboratory (LIT) at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which is expected to cost R$260 million by 2019. Created 27 years ago, the LIT has at is disposal an array of facilities to assemble, integrate and test artificial satellites.  The laboratory was initially equipped to test satellites up to 200 kilograms. In the early 2000s, it was expanded to receive satellites up to 2 metric tons, such as the CBERS series (China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite). Now, the 22,000 square-meter facilities are again being expanded to handle up to 6 metric tons, such as the satellites of the Geostationary Defense and Strategic Communication (SGDC) series. The first of this series was purchased from a European manufacturer and is scheduled to be launched in 2016, but the second SGDC, scheduled for launch in 2021, will be assembled and tested at the LIT.  “Our concern is maintaining Brazilian capacity in satellite testing.  The average age of our public servants is 54 and many will be retiring soon,” says Geilson Loureiro, head of the LIT.  One hundred professionals, including public servants, grant recipients and interns currently work at the laboratory.

José Antonio Brum, a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at Unicamp cautions that there needs to be a push to create stronger laboratories on two fronts. “One thing is big science itself. The establishment of large laboratories with dedicated equipment requires considerable financial resources, but could give Brazil a capacity that it does not currently have and open up new horizons to the scientific community,” says Brum, who served as general director of the Brazilian Association of Synchrotron Light Technology (ABTLuS), a corporation that operated the LNLS and associated laboratories from 2001 to 2009.  “Another thing is setting up the facilities, which are multi-user laboratories that meet the varied and diverse demands of research, with highly sophisticated equipment such as electron microscopes, mass spectrometers and latest-generation sequencers,” he explains.  Multi-user laboratories, notes Brum, serve to organize the use of resources and ensure that a number of researchers have access to equipment that makes their research internationally competitive. “Brazil is not going to establish 10 sources of synchrotron light, but it can have a large variety of facilities that serve local demand.”

Brum is deputy coordinator of the Multi-User Equipment Program (EMU) at FAPESP, which from 1998 to 2014 invested nearly US$140 million in equipment for shared use. Brum says that Brazil is behind in terms of investments in both big science and facilities, and that the mindset of providing equipment to individual groups persists.  “Funding agencies like FAPESP are trying to change this by financing the purchase of equipment for multiple users and requiring counterpart financing from institutions and universities, such as the guarantee of trained staff to operate the laboratories.”  In addition to qualified staff, FAPESP also requires universities to share the costs of equipment safety and maintenance, building the facilities and developing a management plan.

Forty-five percent of facilities directors believe their researchers are adequately trained while 20% believe training is inadequate.  The assessment of technical and administrative staff indicated better performance, however:  69% ranked the number of professionals as appropriate and 72% ranked them as top-quality.  Such a favorable assessment is in sharp contrast to what may be considered one of the most significant bottlenecks for the expansion of research infrastructure:  the training of highly qualified human resources to operate equipment and manage the laboratories.

The Central Laboratory for High-Performance Technologies   (LaCTAD) at Unicamp is one exception to this rule.  Inaugurated in 2013 and outfitted with equipment for research in genomics, bioinformatics, proteomics and cellular biology, the facility has a   team of researchers whose duties are not to produce knowledge, but to operate the equipment and help laboratory users design their experiments.  The team leader is Sandra Krauchenco, who earned her PhD in biochemistry from Unicamp.  “Although Krauchenco and the four field coordinators at the LaCTAD are researchers, they are not assessed through traditional science metrics.  Publishing papers is not important.  What is important is providing high-quality service,” says Paulo Arruda, a professor at the Institute of Biology at Unicamp, who heads up the LaCTAD.  Management of the continuously operating laboratory requires constant planning.  The laboratory provides services to users from anywhere in Brazil for a fee.  In the announcement of the call for bids under the Multi-User Equipment Program launched in 2009, FAPESP broke new ground in establishing facilities.  The LaCTAD was an example of these.  The Foundation invested R$5.5 million in the purchase of equipment, while building construction and staff hiring fell to the university.

Roger Chammas, a professor at the USP School of Medicine and coordinator of the Premium Network (Portuguese acronym for the Multi-User Equipment Program Network), believes this change in the human resources approach is vital for transition to an infrastructure of facilities and major laboratories.  “A Brazilian researcher wants equipment for her own use, not as a status symbol or because it is tradition.  She wants it to support her own work,” he says.  “It is how to ensure that when she needs to conduct her experiment, she will have working equipment.  Without specialized staff that needs to be provided by the universities, the equipment could break down if it were made available to other users.”  The Premium Network has a unique model for organizing the use of multi-user equipment.  It does not have a centralized physical facility like the LaCTAD.  The network, which has received funds from FAPESP for several of its laboratories, has equipment scattered across the 26 USP School of Medicine facilities and is used on a shared basis.  Access is virtually centralized on an Internet site, which receives all requests for service.  Chammas admits that at FM-USP the use of equipment by multiple users is still handled in an inconsistent manner.  “Some laboratories have adapted well but others still have trouble operating under this system.”

Another facility established under the FAPEPS 2009 call for bids was the Center for Research Support Facilities (CEFAP) at USP, which operates at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (ICB).  In 2009, the center received close to US$4 million from FAPESP to purchase equipment and serve users from institutions all over the state of São Paulo.  With seven employees and one manager, insufficient for operating the equipment on an ongoing basis, CEFAP aims to organize the use of the infrastructure by assigning obligations and rights to the equipment coordinator and to users, who must be trained.  The focus is the figure of the “super-user,” a researcher trained to operate the equipment independently.  Another strategy is creation of CEFAP-Pluma, a virtual organization that is trying to centrally organize other equipment dispersed among ICB laboratories.  “Our culture is still one that prefers to make a lot of small investments in a number of facilities rather than have a multiple-use laboratory,” says Carlos Menck, ICB professor and CEFAP coordinator.  “CEFAP-USP would like to change this culture so that researchers could gain access to the large equipment, either through services provided or in multi-user settings.”

The IPEA publication will provide the details regarding research infrastructure in the aviation, defense, livestock raising, information technology, health and oil industries.

Institutions with the largest commitments

Agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom require counterpart funding for equipment investments

Funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States or Research Councils (RCUK) in the United Kingdom require counterpart funding from research institutions to finance equipment purchases.  In the case of the multi-user equipment program at NSF, the leading basic research support organization in the United States, institutions and universities have to contribute 30% of the budget, which could total up to US$4 million and include the purchase or development of equipment.  The RCUK, which consists of seven councils, each responsible for research support in a particular field of knowledge, changed the rules for funding equipment in 2011, and now requires additional financial compensation from institutions.  For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) offers funding for up to half the value of equipment that costs between £10,000 and £135,000.  In the case of equipment that costs over  £135,000, the BBSRC prioritizes the funding of multi-user equipment and shares the costs equally with institutions.  But it may agree to fund up to 100% in exceptional cases, when the acquisition is for increasing capacity in order to meet important strategic requirements on the part of the scientific community associated with the BBSRC.

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