FAPESP strategy seeks balance in international collaboration
Participation by FAPESP in the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities (T-AP), an alliance of 12 funding agencies from the Americas and Europe responsible for the recent call for projects in digital humanities (see report), is an example of the Foundation’s efforts since 2007 to expand the degree of internationalization of science in the state of São Paulo. According to Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, coordinator of the FAPESP Research Program on eScience and FAPESP representative on the T-AP, the goal of the alliance is to connect researchers in the humanities and social sciences on both sides of the Atlantic in order to maximize the advancement of knowledge. “We would like our researchers to use collaboration opportunities to conduct even more sophisticated research and share our experience with the international groups, in a high-level relationship,” she says.
This type of alliance is being duplicated in other initiatives. One of them is the Belmont Forum, a group that comprises 27 agencies from several countries, funding research projects on climate change. FAPESP is represented by Gilberto Câmara, a researcher from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) who chairs the Forum’s Steering Committee together with Kurt Vandenberghe, named by the European Commission. Other examples are the recent agreements concluded between the Foundation and the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD), a consortium of public agencies headquartered in London that funds programs on quality of life and chronic diseases, and the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), a network of organizations that sponsor research on infectious diseases that includes 23 funding agencies.
In the international collaboration initiatives in which it participates, FAPESP would like to establish relationships governed by symmetry and balance, notes Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of the Foundation. “The goal is that the best researchers from São Paulo collaborate with the best scientists in the world to expand the scientific, economic and social impact of São Paulo science,” he says. “Research studies should be developed, written and, if approved, carried out jointly, in balanced partnerships. Our strategy is based on the fact that we have world-class competitive research groups in São Paulo and that it would make no sense to promote international inclusion in a subordinate role.”
Internationalization efforts are being pursued at various levels. The main one is related to bilateral cooperation agreements FAPESP has signed with 50 funding agencies from 25 countries—it is through these that the Foundation funds the activities of São Paulo State researchers, leaving it up to the foreign agency to cover the work of the partner researcher on projects developed jointly. “More than 70 thematic projects have already been carried out together in this type of international collaboration efforts,” Brito Cruz notes. The partnerships involve the world’s leading funding agencies. In April 2017, FAPESP and the Max Planck Society of Germany announced the release of the first call for proposals under the cooperation agreement signed by the two institutions in 2015 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 217). Young postdoctoral researchers can submit proposals to set up research groups at São Paulo universities or institutions. These teams are expected to work together with researchers from the 83 Max Planck Institutes in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and Luxembourg.
Several cooperation agreements with agencies have generated impressive outcomes. In 2011, FAPESP and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the principal basic science funding agency in the United States, established a partnership to conduct studies about Brazil’s biodiversity, connecting the Foundation’s Biota-FAPESP Program and the NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity Program. Two collaborative projects conducted under the scope of this initiative—one about the Atlantic Forest and the other about the Amazon—have contributed to the advancement of an interdisciplinary field in Brazil and the United States known as geogenomics, through which biologists and geologists join forces to explain biological diversity (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 242).
Another example is the thematic project concluded in 2015 that brought together teams led by researchers José Antunes Rodrigues of the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine at the University of São Paulo (FMRP-USP) and David Murphy of England’s University of Bristol. The partnership, established through an agreement signed between FAPESP and the Research Councils UK (RCUK), studied how aging and habits such as sedentarism and excessive salt consumption affect gene expression in some regions of the brain, causing imbalances in the control of heartbeats and blood pressure. In an article published in 2016 in the journal Molecular Biology, the researchers identified two mechanisms through which the RASD1 gene acts on neurons of the hypothalamus and interferes in the control of sodium intake.
The second level of the internationalization strategy provides support to the first level and is related to the agreements signed with 119 universities and research institutions from 18 countries. These agreements both facilitate the exchange of individual researchers and potentially pair them with international agencies for collaboration. To expand partnerships with foreign universities, FAPESP launched the São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT) program in 2014, offering funding for the initial phase of international research collaborations, the so-called seed funding. The goal is to allow researchers from São Paulo and institutions abroad to work together on more ambitious projects. “Funds in amounts of $10,000 to $15,000 are awarded for a one- to two-year period, upon the conclusion of which the partners are expected to conceive of and write a robust research project to be submitted to FAPESP and the institution in the other country,” says Brito Cruz.
The third level is the traditional one of sending researchers and students abroad and welcoming visiting scientists to institutions in Brazil. FAPESP is currently funding 867 scholarships abroad. Of this total, 194 are research scholarships awarded to PhDs who are conducting activities at institutions abroad and 673 are 4- to 12-month research internships at centers abroad, awarded to students at levels ranging from undergraduate to postdoctoral as part of the research project they are already involved in under a FAPESP-funded regular scholarship in Brazil. Travel to Brazil by visiting researchers for periods of up to 12 months brings nearly 200 experienced scientists to Brazil each year to collaborate in ongoing projects carried out by São Paulo scientists. “Every working day, we welcome a new visiting researcher,” Brito Cruz points out. There are 60 scholarships to visiting researchers from abroad currently underway.
In addition to these efforts, the Foundation has also managed to attract foreign companies to support research in São Paulo. Since 2006, a cooperation agreement with Microsoft Research, the research arm of Microsoft, has issued eight calls for proposals to support projects in information technology and communications that have potential economic and social applications.
The most recent of these are some of the Engineering Research Centers (ERC) co-funded by FAPESP and companies for up to 10 years. These bring together researchers from São Paulo institutions and the private sector to face research challenges of interest to the companies. The French ERC Peugeot-Citroën, for example, is dedicated to developing engines that run on biofuels and involves researchers from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), USP, the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) and the Mauá Institute of Technology (IMT).
Other centers co-funded by FAPESP include partners such as GlaxoSmithKline, focused on sustainable chemistry, and BG, which seeks research applications in natural gas. In April 2017, the launch of a new center, in partnership with Shell, was announced, aimed at research in clean energy. The Center’s first five years of operation are expected to be funded by a contribution of R$16.7 million divided between FAPESP and Shell. “We face a huge challenge of providing more energy to a growing world population and searching for a better quality of life,” said Shell Brasil President André Araújo to the Agência FAPESP. “We need to monitor this growth in demand while at the same time produce more energy with fewer CO2 emissions.” Small technology companies are also part of the internationalization strategy through cooperation agreements concluded with the National Research Council of Canada and the R&D Center of the Israel Innovation Authority (MATIMOP).
In April 2017, an opportunity for international collaboration for Brazilians was launched by the Brazilian National Council of State Funding Agencies (CONFAP) and the program of the European Research Council (ERC) of the European Union (see sidebar). Researchers who have already completed postdoctoral internships can apply for an internship of up to 12 months, with research groups in Europe that work in 26 designated fields, such as synthetic chemistry, neurosciences or bioinformatics. More than 300 principal investigators from the ERC have expressed interest in welcoming visiting Brazilians to their groups, according to CONFAP, which organized a March 2017 meeting to present the opportunities to representatives from state research funding foundations. “Although this type of initiative does not have the same symmetry we seek in our internationalization strategy, it can play an important role in establishing new points of contact between Brazilian and European researchers,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz.
The European Research Council (ERC) is supporting world-class research groups, investing 17% of the €77 billion budget under Horizon 2020, the European Union’s principal scientific program. Four Brazilians are heading up projects under the program. One of them is Artur Ávila, winner of the 2014 Fields Medal, an honor awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 223). Ávila, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in Rio de Janeiro, and director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, submitted a project to the ERC in 2010, in the field of dynamic systems, proposing development of a theory capable of predicting the evolution of natural and human phenomena. He was selected under the Starting Grant category, which offers up to €1.5 million to researchers for a period of up to five years.
The Brazilians considered for funding by the ERC have been abroad for some time. That is the case of São Paulo engineer Elison Matioli, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) who left Brazil in 2003. In February 2016, he was selected by the ERC and received €1.8 million in funding to conduct a project in the field of nanotechnology over the next five years. His goal is to develop a class of semiconductors that help produce more-productive power converters. After receiving undergraduate degrees in electronic systems engineering from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP) and physics and applied mathematics from the École Polytechnique in France in 2003, Matioli completed his PhD at the University of California in 2006 and did postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I’m coordinating a team of 10 PhD candidates and two postdoctoral researchers from several countries,” the engineer says. “Unfortunately, none of them is from Brazil.”
The ERC funds are granted directly to the principal investigator. If he changes institutions, the grant goes with him. That is why institutions try to hold onto their “ERCs,” says Eduardo Lee, a researcher at the Condensed Matter Physics Center (IFIMAC) at the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, another Brazilian included under the program. A native of São Carlos (SP), Lee left Brazil in 2004 and earned is PhD in Physics at the Max Planck Institute in Germany after completing undergraduate and master’s degrees in materials engineering at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). For the project, scheduled to begin in June, he will have nearly € 1.75 million. “My research is on topological superconductors, with potential applications in quantum computing. I plan to develop a methodology to obtain a topological superconductor based on semiconductor quantum dots,” Lee explains.
Another Brazilian selected by the program is economist Áureo de Paula, a professor at University College London (UCL). With €1.1 million in funding, he has been working since 2013 on a project that is seeking to develop a model for econometric analysis of social interactions involving companies and individuals. The goal of the study is to contribute towards understanding the factors in play in situations such as when a company decides whether or not to enter a particular market.