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Development aid

At the cutting edge of knowledge

Partnership with Microsoft Research brings about a new support model for basic research

JAIME PRATESThe Microsof Research – Fapesp IT Research Institute, established on April 10, will form a basic information and communication technology (ICT) research network to create knowledge capable of  meeting  the country’s social and economic challenges. The institute’s  initial funding will amount to US$ 400 thousand, shared between the partners, for aid to projects in the fields of health sciences, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, geography and design. The financing will cover a 36-month period. The first call for proposals, released on the day on which the institute was launched, can be found at the Foundation’s website. Projects will be received up to June 11.

The partnership  model is unprecedented in Brazil: it brings together São Paulo universities and research institutes, on one hand, and a company the size of Microsoft Research, on the other, to conduct basic research with FAPESP intermediation. “Our objective is to pursue the progress of knowledge, thinking about future ICT applications”, explains Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. This is not about finding technological solutions for companies, as this should be handled by their own R&D areas. “This they can do themselves. But what companies will become in ten years time will be determined by how they relate to the frontier of knowledge”, explains Brito. “A company’s interest in financing projects such as this derives from coming into contact with this frontier.”

According to Tomasz Kowaltowski, from the UNICAMP Computer Science Institute (Instituto de Computação da Universidade Estadual de Campinas -Unicamp), firms are becoming aware that their activities cannot only be commercial. “It’s not about a financial need. They can see the importance of doing research with universities in order to help solve social problems.”

This new form of university-corporate collaboration will also allow researchers to establish communication channels with partners in other countries and to work with relevant research themes. “Knowledge only advances when scientists communicate with each other and debate their findings”, stresses Brito. The call for proposals to engage in research within the scope covered by the Microsoft Research – FAPESP IT Research Institute, in the opinion of Brito, will intensify the connection between São Paulo scientists and the rest of the world. “And it will provide a new level of international recognition of the research conducted in this state”.

In this first call for proposals, FAPESP is combining two types of previously independent financing. “As we have Microsoft Research resources, the researchers will be able to apply for the funding and grants they need for the project to move forward”, Brito tells us. The incentive, he stresses, is part of the Foundation’s strategy to create “more opportunities” for joint academic and corporate research.

It is expected that as a result of the first public notice some five research projects will be selected, focusing on increasing access to information and communication technologies. The development of technologies to be used in health services, education and economic development, among other areas, should be included.

Thus, FAPESP is consolidating its action strategy in three areas. The first, explains Brito, is support for training human resources and scientists in the state of São Paulo. “The Foundation uses almost one third of its budget on grants connected to scientific education, master’s degrees, doctorates and post-doctoral studies. This is what is going to establish a base of scientific competence and outline future research in São Paulo”, he says.

The second area is support for basic research, driven by and identified through the curiosity of scientists and researchers. “This type of aid accounts for the vast majority of research projects sponsored by the Foundation. And that is how things should be, since one of the most important functions of universities and research institutes is to explore new ideas that  will make up  a body of knowledge so that humankind can develop in the future”, adds FAPESP’s scientific director.

“The third area is a set of initiatives and research projects whereby the Foundation aims at associating excellence in research  with its application, or at least with an outline of this application within a relatively short time”, describes Brito. This type of research is frequently financed by companies. “The Microsoft Research – FAPESP IT Research Institute is aligned with this strategy.”

Partnering Telefônica
The partnership with Microsoft Research is not the first cooperation agreement with companies  to collaborate on projects . Last year, FAPESP and Oxiteno, one of Brazil?s largest chemical industries, released a public call for proposals on research projects in the field of technology in the production of sugars, alcohol and their derivatives. The objective is to explore the frontiers of knowledge and to find innovative solutions that can help cut the costs of ethanol production, making it competitive in the production of chemical products. Investments in this totaled R$ 6 million, half of which was provided by Oxiteno, while the other half came from FAPESP and BNDES – Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (National Social and Economic Development Bank).

JAIME PRATESOn April 27, the Foundation announced an agreement with the Telefônica Group, designed to foster scientific and technological research in information technology and telecommunications. On the same day, the call for proposals was published. As in the case of the agreements with Microsoft Research and Oxiteno, the research should be of basic and applied nature and geared towards new products and services.

The FAPESP – Telefônica agreement regarding Aid for IT and Telecom Research will guarantee the availability for use of a 3.3 thousand km dedicated network of optic fibers in the state of São Paulo, for three years. The company provided this free of charge, to interlink researchers in an experimental high-speed platform, known as a testbed. This network infrastructure will reach the laboratories of all the institutions taking part.

Besides providing this optic fiber network, Telefônica will invest R$ 390 thousand in grants for master’s degrees and doctorates that focus on the themes covered by the agreement. FAPESP, on the other hand, will invest R$ 4 million a year in aid to research projects that focus on future Internet services, products and technologies.

Antonio Carlos Valente, president of the Telefônica Group, stresses that the estimated value of the dedicated network that the firm is offering to the scientific community is R$ 30 million. “To us, however, even more important than this is the fact that the partnership promotes scientific and technological innovation, one of the principles of the Telefônica Group’s operations in Brazil and in the other 22 countries in which it operates. This type of partnership may  later be expanded  throughout Brazil and other Latin American countries”, he states.

FAPESP intermediation is crucial for the consolidation of good business in the research field. “When  FAPESP negotiates, it obtains better terms regarding issues such as patents and intellectual property than if the discussions were being conducted by individual researchers. Collaborative research can be good both for firms, which have innovation know-how, and for universities, which have basic research know-how”, argues Brito.

Microsof Research also relies on this collaborative research model for conducting projects. The firm invests US$ 7 billion a year, or some 15% of its billings, in basic research and new product development. “We have 700 researchers in five laboratories around the world split into 55 different research groups”, explains Henrique Malvar, general director of Microsoft Research. New machine learning technologies are investigated, as well as mathematical theory and information analysis, among other subjects.

“We have researchers of an international standard, who aim to expand the limits of knowledge in the field of IT while, at the same time, helping to develop Microsoft’s products”, he says. Only some projects reach production. “Our horizon is: how can life be improved in ten years time.”

The Microsoft Research effort includes agreements with universities and research institutes, whether by publishing joint work or by providing direct research aid. “Some 15% of the Microsoft Research budget is earmarked for the sponsorship of partnerships with universities”, says  Malvar. Not to speak of the 250 trainees that the firm accepts every year, many of whom are from Latin America. “The partnership with FAPESP is part of this and is based on the quality of the São Paulo academic community, notably those from the University of São Paulo (USP – Universidade de São Paulo) and from the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP – Universidade Estadual de Campinas”, stresses Malvar.

Pasteur’s Quadrant
The Foundation and Microsoft Research are reproducing the model suggested by Donald E. Stoke in the book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. In 1996, Stoke proposed a new classification model for research and innovation based on two coordinates: the first puts a dimension on the progress of knowledge while the second deals with its application. When plotted on a graph, basic research with no immediate application, the best example of which is the physicist Neils Bohr’s research into the atom’s structure, would occupy the upper left hand quadrant. The lower left hand quadrant, according to Stoke’s classification, is for applied research geared toward technological development; an example of this is the electrical lighting system developed by Thomas Edison.

Stoke reserved the lower right  hand corner for research driven by scientists’ curiosity and highlighted, in the upper right hand quadrant, research that can contribute to the progress of knowledge (an inherent quality for  basic research) in parallel with its great potential for practical application. This was the character of Louis Pasteur’s investigation, for instance, into microbiology, which pushed knowledge forward while also helping beetroot alcohol producers. It is there, in Pasteur’s quadrant, that Stoke includes basic research inspired by use that, nonetheless, pushes back  the frontiers of knowledge and fulfills social needs. It is in Pasteur’s quadrant that FAPESP looks for inspiration for the new dialogue between scientific communities and companies.