Sponsoring excellence

Impa widens its commitments and creates chairs paid for by businessmen

In May, the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (Impa), of Rio de Janeiro, launched an appeal, trivial within the North American university circuit, but rarely used in Brazil, to widen and oxygenate its research groups. The Institute obtained sponsorship from businesspersons to fund two chairs for teaching and research, and was able to hire two young mathematicians for four years. The Henrique Bursztyn, from Rio de Janeiro,  thirty-one years of age and a researcher in differential geometry, will come back to Brazil in July, after spells at Berkeley, California, where he did his doctorate and post-doctorate degrees, at the Open University of Brussels, where he was a visiting researcher, and at the University of Toronto, where he worked for two and a half years.  Bursztyn will occupy the Armínio Fraga Chair, paid for by the ex-president of the Central Bank (BC), who today is the owner of an investment firm. “I had plans to return to Brazil, but I only received invitations to continue abroad. The opportunity offered was much better than I had expected”, says Bursztyn.

A second chair, funded by another entrepreneur in the financial sector, who prefers to remain anonymous, has been awarded to Jorge Vitório Pereira, a specialist in systems dynamics, who took his doctorate degree at Impa itself in 2001. “We managed to bring a brilliant mathematician back from Canada and we are maintaining another here in Brazil.  Jorge Vitório had been studying work proposals from abroad and would probably have ended up going there”, says César Camacho, Impa’s director general.

Impa is the mathematics institute with the highest prestige in Latin America, whose scientific standing and intellectual environment can be compared to the best institutions in the world. Its postgraduate programs have received the maximum evaluation grades from Capes (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Level Personnel). Founded more than half a century ago, it has the judicial status of a social organization and receives resources from the Ministry of Science and Technology. The idea of creating the chairs began to take shape at the end of 2003, during the graduation ceremony of a group receiving their master’s degrees in finance, whose sponsor was Armínio Fraga. During a conversation with ex-Central Bank president Fraga, director César Camacho made him aware of the Institute’s projects, told him about the difficulties of hiring young researchers and spoke about the dream of creating privately sponsored chairs. The ex-president of the Central Bank immediately offered his help.

At a later meeting, the Impa director presented his plan. He wanted to create six chairs that would be occupied during four years by researchers with a monthly salary of R$ 6,000.00. Fraga committed himself to one of the chairs and then went on to convince an entrepreneur to finance a second. “I already had huge admiration for Impa, a top line institution”, says Fraga. “The institute maintains its excellence with government resources, but wanted to open up space for young researchers. I saw that I could help and this help could well make the Institute’s excellence perfect. I hope that the example would inspire other sponsors”, added the ex-president of the Central Bank.

Letters of evaluation
The next step was to prepare the selection process, which occurred during the second semester of 2004. Mathematicians with a doctorate degree granted between two and twelve years ago, and with an academic life directed towards research could apply. Twelve qualified applicants showed up. The selection was done by confidential consultations to five eminent mathematicians linked to the areas of each candidate. As there were twelve, the consultation process involved letters of evaluation from sixty researchers. The choices fell upon Bursztyn and Pereira. Those selected, in practice, had the same obligations of the other thirty-two Impa researchers and the institution waits to contract them after the four years of the cathedra. They must administer two courses per year at the level of post-graduation and participate in the scientific and academic life of the Institute.

Private sponsorship for the creation of chairs and study scholarships is a tradition in the United States. Former students who become rich usually make donations to the university at which they graduated. A recent example: in April of 2003, Robert Hill donated US$ 1 million to the Clarkson University, in the town of Postdam, New York State, which founded the Robert Hill Professorship in mechanical engineering. A graduate of Clarkson in the class of 1948, Mr. Hill became an executive of major corporations and, in his old age, decided to donate part of his wealth to the institution. Also there are millionaires who leave their inheritance to academic institutions and they are honored with professorships. In 1999, on his death at ninety-one years of age, the billionaire Paul Mellon left US$ 15 million to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and US$ 90 million to Yale University in the United States. A collector of art and a breeder of racing horses, Mr. Mellon had had a long lasting relationship with academic institutions. In Cambridge, his name baptized an American history cathedra and a library room of rare books.

“In France there are cities that sponsor chairs”, explains César Camacho. In Brazil, the government has always born the preponderant role in financing research and in post-graduation work, although there are isolated experiences of private sponsorship for chairs. The Getúlio Vargas Foundation, for example, has the Sponsored Chair project, through which companies pay for the visit of a foreign professor or the work of a Brazilian professor. Impa’s management board are betting that it is possible to sow the seeds here of the American model. Through the process of choosing the researchers, in reality they ended up selecting six names for six chairs. The Institute plans to hire them as soon as it manages to find sponsors.