Letter from the Editor | 246

Endless debate

In 1945 the United States government published the document Science, the endless frontier, quite possibly that country’s most important official publication that would define its role as world leader in science, technology and innovation. Written by Vannevar Bush, who led the U.S. government agency through which nearly all R&D efforts were carried out during World War II, one of the report’s outcomes was establishment of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. government agency that supports research and that inspired the establishment of similar bodies, including FAPESP.

Although the Bush report was well received, it was also the subject of criticism:  on the one hand, it was thought that the report proposed too little government involvement in support of research; on the other hand, it was argued that industry could do everything proposed as long as it received further tax breaks. The federal budget director facetiously suggested that the report’s title be changed to “Science: the never-ending expense.”

The case, recounted in the introduction by FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz to the re-publication of the Bush report in the journal Revista Brasileira de Inovação, shows that criticism of publicly funded research is not a recent phenomenon, nor one exclusive to Brazil. Closer scrutiny of public funding is common during times of budget shortfall – the preferred care that should also be taken in times of prosperity. The problem lies in superficial analyses of complex questions.

A policy that gives priority to immediate return on investment in science tends to sacrifice so-called basic research, which is carried out without consideration of practical finalities, according to Bush’s definition.  Expanding the understanding of nature and its laws could lead to applied knowledge and innovative solutions, but that is not its initial objective.  This issue’s cover story discusses the common misunderstandings about the friction between basic and applied research and offers an assessment of the role of the federal government in funding the system for science and technology, presenting little known information.

One often hears that the United States is a model of industry involvement in funding university research; however, in recent years, this percentage has fluctuated between 5% and 7% of total investments.  The argument that in the U.S., companies are responsible for the investments that generate innovations and economic prosperity is challenged, among other things, by studies of Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato, who shows that the private sector only became interested in areas like the Internet and biotechnology after public funding sources made huge investments during the high-risk phases. Public funds financed most major scientific discoveries and many technological developments that form the basis for advances in communication and health that only in some instances were envisioned for immediate implementation.

Investing in short-term objectives yields lower returns – in knowledge and innovation. The challenge lies in how to distribute the funds to meet society’s expectations in the short term while also respecting the time it takes for each type of scientific research, so that results can benefit future generations as well.

This issue does not address only the workings of science.  By illustrating the benefits of basic research for the economy, the report that begins on page 50 demonstrates the impact of the project to sequence the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, causative agent of “yellowing” in orange seedling production.  The report about the chikungunya virus is almost a call to research, by showing how little is known about this debilitating disease whose incidence is growing in a disturbing manner. The new fiber-optic distance and data transmission rate record is described in the report that begins on page 70, while page 80 shows the benefits of using technology in the classroom, mainly among students with learning disabilities.