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A revolution in the postdoctoral system

New policy gives priority to postdoctoral grants in the country, extends their length and reformulates interchange with research centers abroad

FAPESP, which in recent years has sought to multiply and improve the mechanisms for inserting newly qualified doctors into the São Paulo research system, is adding another powerful weapon to its arsenal for attacking the country’s old brain drain problem: a new postdoctoral policy.

In fact, this policy “continues and formalizes guidelines adopted over the last year”, says FAPESP’s scientific director, José Fernando Perez. One of the basic elements is to establish as a priority the regular line of grants for postdoctoral work in this country, the maximum duration of which has been extended from two to three years. Also a priority is expanding the maximum duration of these grants to four years when associated with Thematic Projects, Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (Cepids) and the Genome and Biota programs in Support of Young Researchers.

The new policy also marks a refocusing of the interchange with research centers abroad, which, more than individual and long-term training for young doctors, is intended to provide the benefits that this interchange may bring to the growing Brazilian research community that postdoctoral scholars are joining. Thus, it enables them to do one or more research training periods abroad, lasting up to one year, provided it can be shown that these training periods bring concrete benefits to postdoctoral projects and to their research group. And the training periods will be allowed without deducting the time spent on them from the total period of the grant (in practical terms, a postdoctoral researcher conducting research related to a thematic project, for example, in addition to the up-to-four-year grant in the country, may be supported by FAPESP for a further year abroad).

There is another point to highlight: within the new postdoctoral policy, the role of the supervisor, a more experienced researcher who closely monitors and collaborates with the work of the young doctors, becomes more important. Through this, FAPESP is shaping a policy that “allies the goal of ensuring that young doctors have access to high-quality training and improvement to the determination to strengthen the centers of excellence in the state of São Paulo”, says Perez. And, in the process, it creates new options and attractions for establishing young doctors in the state. “This is essential, because they are, doubtlessly, the most valuable element in our research system. Keeping them in this country – adds Perez – is the great challenge for the expansion and consolidation of the Brazilian research system”.

Within this background, it makes every sense to cease treating requests for postdoctoral grants for study abroad made by newly qualified doctors as a priority when they have no solid employment connection with research institutions in the state or they have no postdoctoral grant in this country granted by FAPESP. Also, making a grant for research abroad to a researcher who does have a solid employment connection with a research institution in São Paulo, for periods exceeding a year, will not be given priority treatment.

International competition
FAPESP’s new decisions regarding postdoctoral grants are added to a series of earlier initiatives that already created a favorable climate for welcoming young doctors into the São Paulo research system – and, consequently, the multiplication of centers of excellence in the state, able to turn it into an advanced research center, clearly forming part of the international scientific and technological knowledge production system. One of the most obvious initiatives in this context, is the Support for Young Researchers Program, launched in 1995 and which, up to October of this year  supported 250 projects, involving investment of around R$ 64 million. Under this program, a newly qualified doctor with a good résumé and willing to create a new research group in an emerging center can receive significant help for his or her project and if the researcher has no employment connection with the institution in which he or she is working, he or she also gets a grant lasting for a maximum of four months, plus an annual amount for spending on traveling to take part in events and interchanges with overseas centers.

Nonetheless, we have to take consideration a broader context in the Foundation’s efforts to prevent a brain drain from the state to overseas. And, the thematic projects have crucial role to play in this (today there are 250 of these large-scale projects in course, out of the 520 approved since 1990), large projects like the Genome and Biota projects, and the first ten Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers. When we add this to the hundreds of research groups supported by the regular assist lines and grants from FAPESP, we necessarily reach the conclusion that there are, in São Paulo, “excellent training and specialization conditions for newly-qualified doctors, in most fields of knowledge”, as Perez says. And, the conditions, he adds, for the São Paulo system to absorb around a thousand doctors a year”. About 5,000 doctors a year qualify in Brazil, and around 60% of them qualify in São Paulo, some of whom, after qualifying, return to their home states.

An attraction for foreigners
The number of foreigners from all parts of the world currently pursuing their postdoctoral studies in the state seems to confirm that there are good training conditions in São Paulo. How many are there? More than a hundred, certainly, because a sample of 104 thematic projects, in response to a request from FAPESP to inform whether or not they employed foreign postdoctoral students, 42 of them confirmed that young doctors from abroad were participating in projects under their responsibility, in numbers ranging from one to five.

The declarations by these foreign students are extremely interesting. Miguel Oscar Prado, for example, a 42-year-old Argentine is doing his postdoctorate in the thematic project Problems Arising from the Crystallization of Glass, in the Vitreous Materials laboratory of the São Carlos Federal University (UFSCar), run by professor Edgar Dutra Zanotto, who is also the assistant coordinator of FAPESP’s scientific board. His field of research is the competition between sinter development and the crystallization of vitreous materials that burn at high temperatures. A Doctor from the Instituto Balseiro of the National University at Cuyo, Argentina, he met Zanotto during a lecture in Buenos Aires, and the latter invited him see the research being conducted at São Carlos. “I thought the work was world class and decided to apply for a grant to do my postdoctorate in Brazil”. In his opinion, the quality of the scientific work being published by Zanotto’s group, the level of the research undertaken, particularly in the field of crystallization, and the close contact maintained between the São Paulo laboratory and groups in Germany, Russia and the United States, weighed heavily in his decision. So, he arrived in October 1998 with his wife and three children and a grant from the National Science Council (Conicet) of Argentina, for a minimum period of two years. “I liked Brazil and I would like to come back. I intend to carry on with my research work jointly with the team at the UFSCar laboratory”, he says.

Dirk Koedam, a 40-year-old Dutchman, is doing his postdoctorate in the thematic project Colonial Organization and Reproduction Patterns in Indigenous Bees, coordinated by professor Vera Lúcia Imperatriz Fnseca, at the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP). There, he is doing research into stingless bees and their importance for the environment, a subject that has interested him since he was graduating at the University of Utrecht and which he also studied during his doctorate, in particular the jataí bees, taking advantage of an interchange program with Costa Rica. I decided to come to Brazil, first, because the type of bee I was interested in was only found here”. But since ”Brazil is doing well in discovering the behavior patterns of these bees”, while in Holland the position of research in ethology is difficult, he is making plans to stay in the country, where he has already spent four years, even though his grant lasts for only another year. He imagines that he will be able to stay by lecturing at universities. He also has another good reason for staying: his girl friend is Brazilian, a professor at the São Paulo State University (Unesp).

In the case of the Russian Marina Vachkovskaia, 25, doing a postdoctorate in the thematic project Critical Phenomena in Evolutionary Processes and Systems in Equilibrium, the difficult working conditions for researchers following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the impulsive decision to move to Brazil. She arrived in March 1998, with her husband Serguei Popov, 28, who obtained a grant from FAPESP to do his postdoctorate also in the field of mathematics. After a while, Marina obtained a grant from The National Council for Technological and Scientific Development – (CNPq) and, more recently, a grant from FAPESP to be able to devote her time to a research project in the field of Theory of Probability. For the mathematical couple, the grant “represented quite a lot of money”, at a time when they had no chance of earning anything in Russia. Now, in a situation that both consider very good, in which they spare no praise for the quality of the scientific work of the Mathematics Institute, not least for the interchange with the most internationally respected names in the field, the couple is thinking of staying in Brazil. Serguei Popov passed a test for teaching classes at University of São Paulo- USP, and she intends to follow the same path. “We want to have Brazilian children”, she plans. Both found it somewhat difficult to adapt and learn Portuguese. “But we didn’t have serious problems because everybody at the Mathematics Institute speaks English”.

The idea of staying in this country is a recurrent theme, as the example of Olivier François Vilpoux, a 32-year-old Frenchman, shows. He is doing his postdoctorate in the thematic project Prospecting New Starches for the Food Industry, coordinated by professor Marney Pascoli Cereda, at Unesp’s Tropical Roots and Starches Center in Botucatu. Supported by a French government measure enabling higher education students to engage in paid technical cooperation work in the field of their specialization instead of doing military service, Vilpoux, a business administration graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Nancy, decided to come to Brazil in 1993, taking advantage of an unprecedented number of vacancies. “I was doing my doctorate in France, while doing courses in subjects at USP”, he says. He did his doctoral thesis there and soon after began his postdoctoral studies in the thematic project, at Unesp, financed by FAPESP. He married and says that he will stay in Brazil. His research work is done together with small food farmers in the South and Southeast and in some parts of Maranhão.

These are just a few examples, among many others, of the São Paulo research system’s ability to attract, even before introducing the new postdoctoral policy. With the change to the rules, FAPESP is convinced that not only will  São Paulo continue to exercise this power of attraction to outsiders, ensuring a certain irrigation of the system, but mainly that it will be able to retain young doctors in the State, enabling them to form and take part in groups of excellence, with their own innovative research projects, inserted the  international system of scientific and technological production.

Powerful allies

The United States have been worried about the position of its postdoctoral students. For this reason, around two months ago the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine published guidelines for improving the fate of young researchers, who have frequently been complaining of low pay, long working days and scant recognition of their work. The guidelines, according to a article published in issue 6801 of Nature on September 14, 2000, came up after an extensive investigation into the problem, throughout last year, which resulted in the report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers.

Postdoctoral students in the United States, according to the British magazine, are in a nebulous world somewhere between postgraduate students and faculty members, generally with no official status. Because of this, they rarely have access to the benefits granted to other groups and they complain that their ill-defined position makes them vulnerable to negligence and exploitation by laboratory heads.

The guidelines, prepared by academic opinion makers that decided to join forces with the postdoctoral students, cover ten points, namely: granting appropriate institutional recognition, status, and pay; establishing distinct policies and standards for young scientists; establishing mechanisms to standardize communication with advisors, institutions, organizations providing finance and associations; monitoring and providing formal performance appraisals; ensuring access to medical plans; setting limits for the total time worked as a postdoctoral student; inviting young scientists to take part in establishing standards, definitions and working conditions; giving concrete career advice; improving the transition process of young researchers into regular employment.

It remains to be seen whether those employing young scientists will abide by the recommendations. In any event, the new guidelines will provide some relief. “I think the endorsement of respected institutions will make an enormous difference to our benefit”, says Pauline Wong, president of the postdoctoral association at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore.