Coveted organization chart

Conflicting interests spice up the reform in the Table of Knowledge Areas

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDAThe definition of the new Table of Knowledge Areas is bringing about intensive debate in the country’s scientific and academic community. A preliminary version of the new nomenclature was presented at the end of September by a seventeen-member commission that was  summoned by the Coordination of Tertiary Level Personnel Training (Capes), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep). The tool is adopted by all government organs and development agencies linked to science, technology and innovation in Brazil, hence its importance. It is vital for systematizing information concerning postgraduate programs and research activities; for comparing data in Brazil with that of other countries and for guiding public policies. The commission proposed an extensive re-organization that, in general lines, values recent fields of knowledge and makes flexible the barriers between disciplines. The change starts with an alteration in the names of the so-called major areas, those that are at the top of the table. With the exception of the Biological Sciences and Human Sciences, the others will all be re-baptized, if the preliminary version of the proposal were to be confirmed. This is the case with Exact Sciences and Earth Sciences, which would go on to be called Mathematical Sciences and Natural Sciences. The term “exact” was banished as it was not considered to be precise. The Applied Social Sciences are converted into Socially Applicable Sciences. This resolves the age-old discussion brought up by the theorists of Social Sciences, who say that they are not carrying out applied science.

In the case of the major area of Engineering, renamed as Engineering and Computing, the change was not semantic or philosophical. In practice, it was doing justice to Computing, which, in spite of its growing importance and of the huge scientific productivity, had bitterly taken on the role of co-adjuvant between the Exact and Earth Sciences. Further, according to the provisional text, the Health Sciences will be renamed as Medical and Health Sciences, Agrarian Sciences as Agronomic and Veterinary Sciences, and the very large area of Linguistics, Letters and Arts, as Languages and Arts. Some dilemmas were not settled. In the preliminary proposal an agreement was not reached about the idea of creating a major area of Environmental Sciences. In favor of the change weighs the existence of 196 magazines directed towards questions involving the environment. And the postgraduate programs in this field are those that are growing among those designated as multidisciplinary. Against the change there is the fact that the disciplines related to Environmental Sciences are very well embedded in other areas. The commission will meet again in the middle of November to decide about the pending doubts and to analyze the criticisms and suggestions to the preliminary proposal. It will complete its activities by the 4th of December with the presentation of the proposal?s final version.

Everyone agrees on the necessity of modernizing the Knowledge Areas Table. The current terminology has been in existence since 1984. For at least a decade is has been considered out of date, because of the development of science and technology, above all in research and in interdisciplinary teaching. Various stop-gap measures have been taken. It is not by chance that the major area denominated “Others” has not stopped growing, with more than one hundred related topics. The non-modernization is unjust towards emerging areas and disciplines. There is the risk that a project in the field of recently developed knowledge, submitted to a development agency, would be analyzed by an advisor who is not familiar with the question. “Science advances. New theories, methodologies and objects are always coming about. One needs to update the table in order to recognize the importance of new disciplines”, says Manuel Domingos Neto, the CNPq’s vice-president and the president of the commission charged with proposing change. However, the consensus finishes at this point. It is recognized that a change in nomenclature is necessary, but there have been two unsuccessful attempts at the reformation over the last ten years, one sponsored by development agencies and the other at the inter-ministerial level. They did not go anywhere because irreconcilable disagreements surrounding the changes came up.

The failure shows how much reorganization is a delicate task.  “The academic community is very split up”, explains vice-president Domingos Neto. “Each researcher believes that his or her area is the most important. This is natural. If it wasn’t for this enthusiasm science wouldn’t advance.” A good part of the criticism, in the opinion of the commission’s president, is the fruit of misunderstanding. “The researchers believe that the changes could hurt them in the search for funding, but the table doesn’t have the power to distribute money. It’s only trying to organize information. Each agency has its priorities and defines its investments”, he says. The antidote to avoid yet another fiasco was to create a widespread commission, with government, university, development agency representatives, as well as those from the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) and even from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). “There’s no point in creating a terminology that challenges the thinking of the academic community”, he says.

The discussions, which began in March, were extensive. However, there was agreement in relation to some fundamental parameters. The major one of them was the withdrawal of one of the hierarchical levels from the new table. Today the tree has four hierarchical steps: major area (a conglomeration of various fields of pure knowledge), area (a grouping of inter-related learning), sub-area (area segments of learning as a function of the object studied) and specialization (thematic description of a research or teaching activity). The final step, that of specialization, will continue to exist, but will no longer be part of the main organogram. The objective is to open up space to interdisciplinary areas and to widen the horizon of projects. A study about a certain plant could bring together researchers from whatever areas with interest in the theme, from medical doctors to economists, from pharmacologists to anthropologists. Today there is not this flexibility.

Another point of agreement was with respect to the weighting attributed to each field of knowledge. Disciplines with major scientific production and the formation of an expressive number of researchers merit a highlighted position on the tree. Those that do not fall into this criterion remain grouped under some umbrella. The sub-areas became inflated; from 340 they reached 475. In order to avoid an even greater fragmentation, many disciplines, new and traditional, were classified as specialties, in a separate list from the table that grew from the current 865 items to 1,400.

These ideas, easy to agree to in theory, caused short-circuits when put into practice. An example: Journalism, Radio and Television, Public Relations, Publicity and Propaganda, Publishing and Cinema, which currently lie on the third step of the hierarchy, as sub-areas of Communication, were re-classified as specialties and disappeared from the main table. A protest organized by the association of journalists and researchers in the area congested the electronic mail of 17 commission members, asking for changes. “In the case of the removal of the status of Journalism, the measure ran against all of a legitimate tradition over more than 300 years, when the defense of the first doctorate thesis took place in 1690 by Tobias Peucer, at Leipzig University in Germany”, says Elias Machado, the president of the Brazilian Association of Researchers in Journalism (SBPJor). “With more than four centuries of existence as professional practice, 300 years as a specific research object, 100 years as an academic discipline, presence as an area in all of the international tables in force, Journalism, which gave origin to Communication, even recognized with the status of seven specialties, disappears from the main tree, being relegated to the condition of one among more than 1,400 specialties.”

It is difficult to harmonize interests. Occupational therapy and nursing societies did not like the change of name of Health Sciences to Medical and Health Sciences. They complained that Medicine was overvalued. In other fields, such as that of Physics, there has been pressure to avoid fragmentation, maintaining ramifications in a common area. In others, such as Biology, the pressure was felt in the opposite direction, that of independence of pure areas.

Umberto Cordani, a full professor at the Geosciences Institute of the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a member of the commission, said that all of the changes proposed had some justification. “We analyzed the changes made in countries like Italy, the United States and Canada. And also we went out in search of a reasonable balance. It does not make sense to subdivide too much certain areas and to preserve the integrity of others only because there are interested parties in the game”, he said. The commission is receptive to criticism, but is looking to attend to those with representation. ‘We receive suggestions, some emphatic, direct from researchers, but we’re looking to work on the questions of institutional form, giving priority to those formulated by scientific societies”, says Franco Maria Lajolo, a full professor at the Pharmaceutical Sciences Faculty of USP, and also a member of the commission. The difficulty of constructing a new organizational chart leaves a lesson  – and the commission does not want to lose the chance of making use of it. In the final report there will be the suggestion for the creation of a permanent commission to accompany the table. Thus it will be possible to periodically correct those out of phase, without allowing them to take on an exaggerated dimension.