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Always paying attention to Brazil

Interview with Warwick Estevam Kerr

Throughout his scientific wanderings – which began in Piracicaba in the 50s and continued in Rio Claro, Ribeirão Preto (SP), Manaus (AM), São Luís (MA) and Uberlândia (MG) – Warwick Estevam Kerr, from São Paulo, has shown rare skill in creating and leaving roots, in the shape of well-structured teams and lines of research that are able to flourish even after he has moved on. Because of this charisma and his own contribution to Brazilian science, the 46th National Genetics Congress, held in September in Águas de Lindóia, São Paulo paid tribute to him. Born in Santana do Parnaíba in 1922 and a graduate of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq) of the University of São Paulo (USP), he became a world authority on the bee genetics to the point of being the first Brazilian scientist to be elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1990. Besides taking care of his own work, expressed in 622 articles published in specialized magazines in Brazil and abroad, he managed to engage in science in a still broader way: he was the first scientific director of FAPESP and he is back running the National Research Institute of the Amazon Region (Inpa), which he had run in the 70s. In this interview with Carlos Fioravanti, among good-humored stories and advice, Kerr speaks of his experience at the head of these institutions and the guidelines of his own work: making science contribute to the well-being of the Brazilian people. It is such a powerful concern that in his numerous travels he never fails to take a handful of drumstick tree seeds or moringa (Moringa oleifera), a shrub whose leaves, he discovered, are very rich in vitamin A and the seeds, after being ground, have the ability to clean the dirtiest water.

You were FAPESP’s first scientific director from 1962 to 1964. What problems did you face?
The first problem was a subjective question: “Am I doing the right thing?” With funding from the Rockfeller Foundation, I traveled to the United States, Canada, Britain, Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. I wanted to see how these countries funded scientific research. The US system was impracticable: the judgment was very expensive since the advisors were paid. We made our choice for the assessing  systems of the poorer countries. I used many Israeli ideas, even without having been there, and Norwegian ones. Israel was in economic difficulty, but is got a lot of money from elsewhere and Norway was in economic difficulty because of the war. But, the way they spent their money was very serious and very good.

What ideas from these countries did you use?
One of the things I put into practice was that a project did not need to be directly to the benefit of the State of São Paulo. But researchers had to be warned and they signed a document undertaking to do everything possible to seek scientific benefit for the State. Research could also be done outside São Paulo, provided that it benefited the State. A case in point is Vanzolini’s research [Paulo Emílio Vanzolini, zoologist]. With a boat bought by FAPESP, he traveled through the whole of the Amazon region in search of lizards and discovered many important things, to the point of painting an overall panorama of lizards throughout Brazil.

As scientific director, what were your concerns?
My first concern was to establish the internal regulations, which were then approved by the Legislative Assembly. I had two excellent legal experts; one was José Geraldo de Ataliba Nogueira, who was FAPESP’s legal advisor, and the other was William Saad Hossne, its administrative director. Together they wrote the law and brought to me. I would literally leave the room, come back, and say, “Now I am the user, I want to know how this will hamper or improve my scientific activities”. That is how not just the regulations were prepared, which were then copied by other institutions, but also the actual laws governing the Foundation. The Constitution of São Paulo itself already laid down that it was FAPESP’s function to undertake research to the benefit of São Paulo. I was also very concerned with speed with which processes were assessed. I could decide quickly enough if I understood the subject. If not, I would have to call on advisors, specialists in the subject. We never engaged in political persecution Schenberg [Mário Schenberg, physicist, 1914-1990] was a communist and received a good budget. The rector of USP, Miguel Reale, was considered right-wing and he too received money for various projects.

What was the political climate like?
In the 60s there was the dictatorship, and that is always bad for a university. When I say dictatorship, I mean the period from 1964 to 74. Geisel [Ernesto Geisel, president of Brazil between 1974 and 1979] ended the dictatorship and embarked on greater political openness. A group of Americans, those known as Brazilianists, came and wanted to show that the dictatorship was the worst thing that could have happened to Brazil. Suddenly they concluded that for the universities it was not. The military government created a university in each state. This does not mean we had good professors; the dictatorship always forgets that having good professors is essential. But there never was another government that, in proportion to the population, gave so much money to scientific research in Brazil. But in spite of the money and the apparent progress, a dictatorship is never good for science. We need freedom of thought.

What sort of damage did the dictatorship do to science?
The first damage was the flight of researchers from Brazil; nowadays they leave for economic not political reasons. But we still pay professors more than they do in Argentina and Chile.

What did it mean to be scientific director of the FAPESP at that time?
The scientific director has a lot of power. Whether we like it or not, we run the risk of directing the country’s physics, biology and chemistry in only one direction. It was a considerable responsibility – indeed it still is. Perez’s [José Fernando Perez, present scientific director] responsibility is bigger than mine because he manages a much bigger budget. But it was also a great joy. I knew practically all the good researchers in the State and it was very good to have an overview of what the state produces or could produce and how science can become involved in its development.

What connections can you make between the pioneering times of genetics and present-day genetic research?
The new sequencing techniques have only improved our knowledge of biodiversity, which has always been important to me. But even so, it is not always easy. I currently have six students engaged in the most varied of activities. One of them Maurício Bezerra, is doing his doctorate and he is now a professor at the Maranhão State University. He is undertaking the characterization and description of bees in that region, from the morphological and molecular standpoint. But the university where is he is working is not very rich. I advise him, “Don’t lose hope, keep working and use well the little money you receive; it is given to you by the people of  Maranhão, and don’t forget that, in addition to your research, you are doing something to enable the people that pay for your research to make progress in life too”. I always remember, we have to work for the people of Brazil.

Is this a common concern?
No, no it isn’t. I don’t know why, I am not a sociologist, but our president has not been able to assemble the people round him to carry better projects. Episodes like the sale of Vale do Rio Doce and privatization in general have lessened patriotism a great deal. People have lost a lot they used to be proud of and aren’t proud of any more. I am absolutely against globalization. I am Brazilian. I do not want globalization because I think is too damaging for us! I prefer to pay a little more for a Brazilian product than a little less for some product from China or from I don’t know where. My commitment is to the Brazilian people. There are those who say I am a fanatic; but I am not. I merely see how I can help improve life for the Brazilian people. Scientists sometimes have the idea that they have nothing to do with the country…

What advice would you give to someone starting out ?
The first thing is to love the people surrounding you and gradually think what you can to the benefit these people. Around six months ago, at a small party, someone asked an Indian from the Inpa, Osmarino, who was retired, “How should research be done?” He thought a little and then replied, “Research has to be done with love”.  I also recommend all my students to keep a notebook for setting down ideas (taking out his, with a blue cover). Here it is. (reading) Make a line with two alleles… the whole idea of how to do bees with accurately known alleles. Investigate respiration and the temperature using infra-red and analyze the CO2 that comes out of the colony. This notebook has around forty ideas, set down in the last two weeks. I used to make notes on napkins and throw then into a bag. It was my ideas bag.

And could you find your notes?
One day a lady from Maranhão, thinking she was doing the right thing, said to me, “Professor, forgive me, I don’t know how a bag of old paper could stay for so long behind you desk, I personally took it to the incinerator and burned it all!” “Thank you”, I said, with a lump in my throat. 1,400 pieces of research prepared over years had just gone up in smoke! It’s just an example to show how we can have ideas at any time; we saw outside a wonderful yellow plant. I saw another equally beautiful about ten kilometers from here. But I only saw two. Why don’t we get the seeds of these trees and multiply them so as to make the town more cheerful in this season? Around here there are not enough trees flowering at different times of the year. Another thing, I love Brazilian bees, native bees, stingless. It is important for professors to speak of them, so that all students have 10, 20 or 40 boxes at home, to keep the variability of local bees, which are disappearing. Every time we plant sugar cane, we destroy stingless bees. But if people collected the bees in advance from the trees to be cut down… We have to note down these ideas and pass them on to the mayor, who is not obliged to be the only one in the world to have good ideas.

And for present team leaders, what do you recommend?
The first thing is to be able, to study a lot and invest in themselves and their training. Sometimes I see researchers complaining they don’t have the money to work, but they had enough to buy a new car. When I was in Piracicaba, instead of buying a car, I bought a bicycle and subscribed to a scientific magazine and bought books that would go to the library. It is very sad when a student asks a question and the professor cannot say, “right now, I don’t know, but tomorrow I’ll tell you”. Better still is when he already knows and gives the reply immediately.

What do you intend to do in the Inpa?
The Inpa is a quite well endowed, well-structured institute. The previous director, Ozório José de Menezes  Fonseca, did a good job. Now we just have to move things forward, adding to a few lines of research, cutting back on others. I also need to improve certain aspects because I recently saw a worrying criticism. The first thing to pay attention to in conserving a forest is pollination. Without pollination there are no seeds, or fruits, or dispersal of the fruit. More recently, financing for three projects, the core of which was the study of pollination, was turned down. In other words, the people appraising projects do not have a good ecological viewpoint.

What are you researching at the moment?
I am researching fruit and vegetables, as always. I am developing a new variety of tangerine that is more drought-resistant. I took good tangerines from Maranhão that resist up to six months of drought and I planted them down there in Uberlândia. I’ve got 15 seedlings that will vary, naturally, because they were planted from seed, but they are very good and they are already producing. Two have borne fruit, and that’s great. This year they should all bear fruit. Now I am going to see how they behave when grafted, which is a necessity in growing oranges. Then, I will offer these tangerines to everywhere that suffers from periods of drought. Another fruit I am involved with is the camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia ), which in my opinion, should be distributed all around the world. It contains 3,000 to 3,500 milligrams of vitamin C in every 100 grams!  I intend to extend this research and get more researchers interested in the plant.

All this at the University of Uberlândia?
Yes. Research into fruit and vegetables is paid for by the Fapemig [Research Foundation of the State of Minas Gerais]. In vegetables, I am working on lettuce that everyone likes to eat. But the most consumed type of lettuce doesn’t even contain a thousand international units of vitamin. The type we are working on contains ten thousand. Two leaves of it supply all the vitamin A that anyone needs a day. This research is already sixteen years old. It has already worked, but it goes on because we have to find out what it is not resistant to.

Have the results already been published?
We haven’t published anything yet because I’m afraid that some big powerful company would steal the lettuce and insert certain genetic makers to claim that they did it. I want to do these markers so that the lettuce is easily identifiable if it is stolen. I don’t want them to charge the Indians. They can even steal it, but I don’t want them to rob the Indians or to prevent me from distributing my own seed.

The markers replace patents, which you don’t like, do you?
It’s true. I don’t like patents. I am an old socialist.