An action unprecedented in Brazil was recently announced by the government of the state of São Paulo with the intent to bring science and government management closer together. By early 2016, each state government department (secretaría) must have a scientist-in-chief whose primary duty will be to identify the best solutions to deal with the challenges faced in that department, based on scientific knowledge. The announcement was made by Márcio França, lieutenant governor and state secretary of Economic Development, Science, Technology, and Innovation, at the opening session of the National Forum of State Research Funding Agencies (CONFAP) held August 27-28, 2015, in the state’s capital. The initiative was inspired by the science advisory model employed at different levels of government in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel.
The initiative began to take shape at a meeting of the FAPESP Board of Trustees on March 18, 2015 at which the lieutenant governor was an invited guest. On that occasion, França mentioned the difficulty of identifying researchers who had ideas that could help managers in government agencies. The suggestion to create the position of scientist-in-chief came from Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the Foundation’s scientific director. “Professor Brito cited the experience of European countries, the United Kingdom among them, which had created the post of scientist-in-chief in their government structures to help ministers, prime ministers, or presidents make decisions,” recalls Fernando Costa, a professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and member of the FAPESP Board of Trustees, one of those present at the meeting.
Brito Cruz took the opportunity to explain to the lieutenant governor that about 55% of FAPESP funds are invested in research focused on applications and Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, FAPESP vice president, added that almost 30% of the Foundation’s investments are directed toward health care and could directly benefit the work of the São Paulo State Health Department. “Other fields, like agriculture, education, and public safety, should also take better advantage of contributions from researchers,” Krieger says. Márcio França liked the suggestion. “I thought: why not enhance the dialogue with the scientific community through a foundation like FAPESP?” the lieutenant governor recalls. He took the idea to São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin and was given the green light to implement it.
“This decision doesn’t mean that the government of São Paulo hasn’t been listening to the scientific community,” observes Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge, deputy chancellor of São Paulo State University (Unesp), and also a member of the FAPESP Board of Trustees. She says the objective is to help knowledge generated at the state’s universities and research institutions to be quickly absorbed by the public administration. A draft of the decree is being prepared with advice from the Foundation. It is hoped that scientists-in-chief will expand upon the application of the results of research projects, including those supported by FAPESP, suggest connections with projects already underway, and propose new projects.
The government is now studying the details of the initiative. The first step will be to select the scientists-in-chief who will work in the various departments. According to França, the strategy will most likely be to invite professors who are affiliated with the three São Paulo state universities – the University of São Paulo (USP), Unicamp, and Unesp—who may or may not take leave in order to serve. Also under discussion is the best length for their term of office. França notes that one thing is certain: the scientists-in-chief will have plenty of work. “Problems and challenges for government are piling up daily, in all sorts of areas,” the lieutenant governor remarks.
The compass that guides future paths is that of international examples. In September 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama offered a $20 million prize to the research group that was able to develop the best test for rapidly recognizing infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such infections are responsible for the death of 23,000 Americans every year. The offer was motivated by an evaluation that the White House had commissioned the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to make. That council is composed of about 20 experts, including Nobel laureates and representatives of industry and headed by John Holdren, a professor at Harvard University and science adviser to Obama.
The United States has a long tradition in science advisory services. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an advisory committee formed of scientists, engineers, and health professionals to advise him. In 1957, the U.S. was the first to appoint a scientist-in-chief to the White House staff. Departments and independent agencies soon began to call on the consulting services of experts. In 1998, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to produce a report on the kind of support that science could provide in matters affecting foreign policy. It was recommended that she select a science adviser. “My job is to help the government use the resources of science and technology in forming the basis of foreign policy, Vaughn Turekian, Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, told Pesquisa FAPESP. Former international director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Turekian recalls that he was subjected to a rigorous review of his scientific credentials. “The adviser is appointed for a specific length of time. That’s intentional. It’s good to remember that an adviser is not a political appointee,” he explains.
The United Kingdom provides another example; it established the post in 1964. The function of scientist-in-chief is now carried out by immunologist Mark Walport, a former director of Wellcome Trust, a foundation that finances biomedical research. Walport has been an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron since 2013. One of the main subjects that Walport has dealt with in government was animal testing in research. In 2014, after statistics showed that the number of animals used in preclinical testing in the United Kingdom had increased in recent years, the government announced measures to reduce their use or find alternatives. Walport served as a bridge between government and the scientific community. He acknowledged the need for changes, but pointed out that it’s not yet feasible to abolish the use of animals in scientific studies.
Walport also chairs the Council for Science and Technology (CST), associated with the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills of the United Kingdom. The council has a division of experts who comprise the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). The team was activated in 2010 when ash from a volcano in Iceland affected United Kingdom airspace, and in 2011 after the Fukishima nuclear incident in Japan.
The United Kingdom has scientists-in-chief in departments and ministries. “There is a network of science advisers within the government. That has brought the different ministries even closer together. Professor Walport holds a weekly meeting with the advisers, who gather to discuss the priorities of each area,” said Robin Grimes, chief science adviser to the British Foreign Secretary, in speaking to Pesquisa FAPESP. “I think this action will enable São Paulo to work more closely with science, besides gaining access to renowned networks of researchers in Brazil and the rest of the world,” Grimes said.
James Wilsdon, an expert in science policy at the University of Sussex, England says these examples have helped other countries build models of science advisory services adapted to their specific realities. “There is a wide variety of subjects that need to be seen from the scientific viewpoint, such as climate change, pandemics, food security, and poverty,” Wilsdon explains in a report presented at the conference of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) held in August 2014 in Auckland, New Zealand. That organization brings together decision-makers and researchers for the purpose of sharing experiences and discussing how government use scientific information. The report evaluates the advisory models adopted in 20 countries. In addition to classical examples, the document describes cases of countries that only recently created the position, such as New Zealand, whose first scientist-in-chief, Peter Gluckman, was appointed in 2009.
The study shows that some countries have opted for forms of advisory services not tied to the figure of a scientist-in-chief. In Japan, the Council of Science, Technology, and Innovation (CSTI) is one of four councils that assist the office of the prime minister. It is composed of the prime minister, six ministers of State, and representatives of the scientific community and industry. Other countries, such as China, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Africa, take advantage of the expertise of entities that represent the scientific community. The German Research Foundation (DFG), a non-governmental research assistance agency, is consulted by the government and helps develop public policies. “We make formal statements in Senate committees and interact directly with the government,” says Dietrich Halm, director of the DFG’s Latin America office. According to Wilsdon, one of the advantages of that model is that researchers enjoy independence from the government.
In addressing Latin America and the Caribbean, the forum’s report on science advisory services mentions the examples of Cuba and El Salvador. Under the Cuban model, a science advisory office composed of 31 members is connected with the Council of State. Although Brazil has never had a scientist-in-chief, its government has created mechanisms for liaison with researchers. “The federal government is advised informally by the scientific community on various subjects,” says Aldo Rebelo, then-minister of science, technology, and innovation (MCTI). “In my case, I maintained contacts with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), and with scientific societies.” According to FAPESP Vice President Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, who has also served as president of the ABC, the activities of a scientist-in-chief should complement the work of the science academies. “The recommendations made to the government by the academies are on the macro plane. But the scientist-in-chief works on the implementation plane, with the details of what needs to be done in the daily life of the public administration,” he says.
In São Paulo State, science advisory services have already been available to the government in specific situations, even without the presence of scientists-in-chief. One example is the interaction between experts associated with the Research Program in Identification, Conservation, Recovery and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in the State of São Paulo (Biota-FAPESP) and those in the São Paulo State Department of the Environment. Since the program was launched in 1999, the results of the Biota program have been cited in support of decisions that formed the basis of 23 state resolutions and decrees. There is a channel for dialogue with managers of the conservation units where the projects are carried out. “The researchers are usually members of advisory councils associated with state parks and other protected areas,” observes Carlos Joly, a Unicamp professor and coordinator of the program. The specialists connected with Biota also work in partnership with institutions associated with the department, such as the Botanical Institute, the Forestry Institute, and the Forestry Foundation. Secretary of the Environment Patricia Faga Iglecias Lemos personally stays informed about the program’s scientific production.
A further example is provided by the State Council on Science, Technology, and Innovation in Health, established in 2014 to advise the State Department of Health in formulating and conducting policies. The council is composed of representatives of the public universities in São Paulo and of institutes, research centers, hospitals and entities associated with industry. “Currently, the council is discussing a proposal to develop a state policy on science, technology, and innovation in health,” explains Council President Sergio Swain Muller. “We have already held workshops, obtained contributions from the universities, and are drafting a document with diagnoses and actions for use in consolidating that plan.” The council also has the task of helping to define priorities for the next request for proposals to be issued under the Research Program for the Unified Health system (PPSUS) conducted by FAPESP in partnership with the São Paulo State Department of Health, the Ministry of Health, and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “One of the priorities is to support research studies on new mechanisms for public management of health care,” says Muller. The São Paulo Agency for Agribusiness Technology (APTA) was established in 2002 within the state Department of Agriculture and Food Supply to coordinate research efforts of interest to agribusiness. Its organizational structure includes the Agronomic Institute (IAC), Biology Institute of São Paulo, Agricultural Economics Institute, Fishery Institute, Food Technology Institute, and Zootechny Institute of São Paulo, as well as 15 regional research hubs.
“We go out looking for studies that might resolve problems faced by farmers and forward them to the department,” says APTA coordinator Orlando Melo de Castro. One of the department’s challenges for which the solution is being debated among the member institutes of the agency is how to make sugarcane more drought-resistant. “The IAC was contacted because it is already working on that subject and has even partnered with sugar mills in Goiás State, where there has been a lengthy drought. The idea is for the department to take advantage of that research in its programs,” Castro explains.
Sociologist Simon Schwartzman, a scholar in the Brazilian scientific community and researcher at the Institute for Research on Work and Society, notes that Brazil lacks a tradition in public managers’ use of science. “Of course there are exceptions,” he says. “The Ministry of Health has its own research center, the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, and the same is true of the Ministry of Agriculture, which gets help from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). Carlos Joly recalls that the scientific community would usually set up barriers when it came time to sit down at the table with politicians. “I served as environmental adviser during the drafting of the 1988 Constitution and was criticized by colleagues who didn’t think a scientist should get involved in matters of politics,” he recalls. In 1995 Joly was invited by then-secretary of environment for São Paulo Fábio Feldmann to serve as his adviser. “By that time, such a relationship was not seen as unusual. Researchers have gradually come to realize the importance of collaborating with government managers,” says Joly.
Climatologist Carlos Nobre, president of the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), still remembers the tense relations between politicians and scientists that prevailed in the past. In 1998, Nobre and his team from the Center for Weather Forecast and Climatic Studies (CEPTEC) sent the federal government and Congress an opinion that predicted that Brazil’s Northeast would experience a severe drought in the following months as a result of El Niño. “No one listened to us,” Nobre recalls. “I don’t think they believed, at the time, that it is possible to make quality predictions of drought using mathematical models.”
Lieutenant Governor Márcio França acknowledges that tension sometimes arises when politicians and scientists get together. “The issue is that a scientific consensus is not always financially and politically feasible at that time,” he says. Carlos Nobre, who has held posts in scientific policy management at the MCTI and is a member of the corps of experts in the world forum of science advisory services, argues that even so, the situation is better today than it was years ago. “Both sides realize that solving problems like droughts and natural disasters requires a joint effort,” he says.
Author of the book The Fifth Branch: science advisers as policymakers and of articles that address the relationship between science, democracy, and politics, American Sheila Jasanoff, from Harvard University, warns that giving scientific advice to governments means making a lot of judgments. “It requires making decisions about such matters as whether it is better to accept a risk or to take precautions. You need to know how to weigh the various kinds of evidence,” she explains. According to Jasanoff, the advice can indeed be helpful to managers. “But science advisory bodies need to operate in the open, transparently. U.S. law requires this,” she explains. In 2010, the British government published a document that recommended that the levels of uncertainty surrounding scientific questions be explicitly identified in opinions sent to public managers, communicated in simple and direct language.