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A daring idea

Researchers look for support to found a Neuroscience Institute in Natal

Brazil has to lose its inhibitions and inferiority complex and turn itself into a production agent of science of top quality, capable of yearning to win a Nobel Prize. This is a dream that is driving the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, a forty-two year old Paulista (Born in São Paulo) who has been doing research in the United States for the last fifteen years. Together with two other Brazilian neuroscientist – Sidarta Ribeiro, thirty two years of age, and Cláudio Mello, thirty nine years of age -, he is cuddling an ambitious project: to transform the city of Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, into the capital of national neuroscience, beginning with the founding of an international institute capable of attracting researchers from the country and abroad.

“There is a very high exodus of scientists and we believe that the political moment, with the election of President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, is favorable”, Nicolelis, professor of neurobiology and biomedical engineer at Duke University in North Carolina, points out. The project even forecasts the construction of a free teaching center capable of giving training of the highest caliber to between 300 to 500 children. “The idea is to place emphasis on the sciences, languages and creativity”, Nicolelis says.

The two initiatives – above all that of the founding of the school – can already count upon the support of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). “These children are going to work and study with people who are at the top in science, which in the medium-term will give an incalculable return to society”, celebrates the pro-rector of post graduate research at the UFRN, Nilson Sena de Almeida. “There will be attention paid to the highly talented children as well as those with learning difficulties. It’s a brilliant idea, a new model”, says the pro-rector enthusiastically.

Collective work
Ways to make the project viable – whose installations should be ready in three years and fully functioning in at the maximum five, according to Nicolelis’s project – are being studied. The possibility that it can contribute to the decentralization of scientific production may attract resources from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). “And democratizing is a way to attract the foreign scientist”, adds Nicolelis. As a matter of fact, the MCT has already made its first moves. “The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) is going to participate with grants and the Ministry will open up a competition for getting the researchers in place. This is collective work”, says the Secretary of Policies and Programs in Science and Technology at the Ministry, Gilberto Sá.

But the idea is not to just rely on the support of the government, but also on business and international foundations. “The Max Planck Institute in Germany has already signaled its intention of placing resources in the project”, forwards Almeida. Nicolelis said to that Hannah Hoag, of the magazine Nature, says that the group will need some US$ 20 million to build and equip the institute. He also said well that the team plans to manage these resources by way of a non-profit organization that, when established, will be called Alberto Santos-Dumont. Up until now, the project can count upon US$ 50,000 obtained by private donations.

These resources will be eaten up in the funding of an international conference on neuroscience, sponsored by Duke University in partnership with the UFRN, which will take place in Natal, in March of 2004. Among others, the event has the confirmed presence of Torsten Wiesel, the President Emeritus of the Rockefeller University in New York, a laureate and winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology in 1981. Nicolis guaranteed to Nature that Wiesel agreed to be a member of the Institute’s Board, as well as the neuroscientist Jon Kaas from the Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “The Secretary for Tourism of Rio Grande do Norte, Haroldo Azevedo, guarantees that the state government will give all its support to the project and is negotiating the donation of land close to Barreira do Inferno, which belongs to the Brazilian Air Force. “The location would be ideal because it’s close to the UFRN campus, it’s of easy access, is sited in a preservation area and is close to the beach.”

Nicolelis and his group of friends made their plans and ideas public on the 6th of May in an article published in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. Isaac Roitman, the evaluations director at the Coordination of Training of Personnel of Higher Level (Capes) has already joined the cause. “These are young people who chose Natal for a number of reasons among which is that they believe that there must be a more homogenous regional distribution of science.” Roitman emphasizes that the UFRN is a fine option because it can count upon an important center of primatology and is an area strong in psychopharmacology.

Claudio Mello, another of Nicolelis’s partners, has been working in the United States for fifteen years where he is a researcher at the Neurology Institute of the Oregon Health and Science University. A Ph.D. in neurology and a specialist in learning and memory, Mello considers the proposal of a center of excellence unbound to an academic structure, along way from the Rio-São Paulo and where research of high quality can be carried our, to be seductive.

The third partner is the neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro, who has lived for eight years in the United States and is working beside Nicolelis at Duke University, studying the formation of memory during sleep. Of recognized talent outside of Brazil, Ribeiro would not hesitate in leaving it all behind. “Brazil is passing through a very positive change and now is the hour to return and contribute.”

The army of Brancaleone
Director Roitman says that Capes is assisting the research group in negotiations with the UFRN, development agencies, the CNPq and Finep. The first contact with the university’s administrative board, local researchers and the State Governor, Wilma de Faria, demonstrated the fine receptivity of the project. “We felt support as the idea grew. And the important thing, besides the scientific point of view, is that additional means of developing research will be looked for” In Roitman’s opinion, an initiative of this size needs to have continuous resources and instruments that guarantee its perpetuity. “We are in need of, for the academic community throughout the country, a culture of donating. And at this point enters the line of convincing the Brazilian aristocracy and of the proposal of establishing a law that could guarantee some tax breaks in as incentive to projects.”

The Governor has still not confirmed the possible donation of the land, but says that she has spoken about it with the Minister of Science and Technology, Roberto Amaral, to demonstrate the intention of the State to receive the neurosciences center. “I have requested all institutions of Rio Grande do Norte to push forward so that this wish becomes a reality.” The Governor guarantees that her government will participate in the investment for the installations and in the concession of research grants. “The founding of the institute will be a revolution for the state”, she evaluates.