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Between the laboratory and the office

Oscar Sala combined scientific excellence and institutional leadership

CLAUDINE PETROLI/AGÊNCIA ESTADOSala in July 1977, year of the SBPC meeting at PUC-SP, invaded by the policeCLAUDINE PETROLI/AGÊNCIA ESTADO

It is common for researchers to change the direction of their main activities as the years pass. Some choose to become managers of science and technology and end up so absorbed by bureaucracy that they rarely return to the laboratory or classroom. However, there is class of scientists who manage to reconcile all the different activities with the same aptitude and quality for most of their lives. Oscar Sala was one of those rare personalities of Brazilian science,  judging from all the statements made about him. He died on January 2 from cardiac arrest at 87. He was one of Brazil’s most important physicists and a competent and important manager, closely linked to the history of FAPESP, having been its scientific director between 1969 and 1975 and its president from 1985 until 1995. He leaves a wife, Rosa Augusta, three children and six grandchildren.

Oscar Sala was born in Milan, Italy, of a Brazilian father and Italian mother. He came with his family to Bauru, in upstate São Paulo when he was 2 years old. He graduated in music from a conservatory in the city but decided to do an engineering course at the Polytechnic School. His move to physics happened while he was on vacation in Bauru. “There was a lot going on in the aviation field, with balloons being released to great heights to measure cosmic radiation. One day I got into conversation with a man who turned out to be Gleb Wataghin”, Sala said in an interview with Amélia Império Hamburger, which was published in the book “Scientists of Brazil” (SBPC, 1998). Wataghin, a Russian living in Italy, was one of the foreign professors who helped consolidate the position of the University of São Paulo (USP), which has been responsible for an extraordinary generation of Brazilian physicists. “I’d already read a little about cosmic radiation and asked him some questions and he told me what he did and in the end convinced me to leave the Polytechnic and start studying Physics”. The experiments formed part of the expedition led by North American, Arthur Compton, who visited Brazil in 1941. In the same year, Sala started as a Physics student and graduated in 1945. While still a student, he collaborated with the Brazilian army, building portable transmitters used in the campaign in Italy during the Second World War.

In 1946, he became assistant to the chair of general and experimental physics, held by Marcello Damy de Souza Santos, another disciple of Gleb Wataghin. In the same year, he won a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation and went to do an internship at the University of Illinois, in the United States, under the guidance of Maurice Goldhaber, to work with neutron physics. In 1948, he moved to the University of Wisconsin and, with Ray Herb, planned the Van de Graaff-type electrostatic accelerator to be installed at USP. This was the first equipment to use pulsed beams for studies on nuclear reactions with rapid neutrons which are important to research in the nuclear energy area. In 1972, in the Physics Institute at USP, he assembled the partial project for Pelletron accelerator, which substituted the Van de Graaff.

Action and reaction
“Sala was very good at noticing the moment things happened and   how to react to them”, says physicist and historian, Shozo Motoyama, from the Interunit Center of Science History at USP. So, for example right after the Second World War, realizing the importance that experimental nuclear physics might have in Brazil, he made an effort to consolidate it. He knew how to choose the particle accelerators that were suitable for the tight Brazilian science and technology budget, but that were capable of contributing to scientific results relevant to that particular moment in history. It was with this realization that he put together the Van de Graaff in the 1950’s and the Pelletron in the 1970’s. At least two generations of Brazilian nuclear physicists were formed on these machines. “Sala received the Moinho Santista Prize in 1981, thanks in large part to this work”, says Motoyama.

Family CollectionSala working with a collaborator: right choice of machine, in keeping with the budget of Brazilian Science and TechnologyFamily Collection

In the 1960’s, he took over the nuclear physics chair and began to act in a systematic way in organizations in Brazil and abroad, dealing with topics related to his specialty and matters related to scientific and technological policy. He became a member of the International Committee on Nuclear Structure (Kingston, 1960) and the Board of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq, 1964-1968), among various other organisms. He was also one of the founders and the first president of the Brazilian Society of Physics (1966).

In 1969, the then scientific director of FAPESP, Alberto Carvalho da Silva, was removed from his position by the military. The chairman of the Board of the Foundation, Antonio Barros Ulhôa Cintra, former dean of USP, appealed to Sala to take over the position. “He told me that if I didn’t accept FAPESP it would be closed”, Sala told Amélia Hamburger for Scientists of Brazil. “For more than a year I went to Alberto’s house every weekend to discuss directives and we became great friends”. With skill, firmness and good contacts the physicist managed to maintain the military regime at a distance from the Foundation, without disturbing its routine. “The interesting thing is that he formed an influential pair with Alberto Carvalho da Silva for any years”, says Amélia.

“Sala was the scientific director at a very delicate moment. His work was very decisive in the process of consolidating the ideals of the Foundation”, says Celso Lafer, president of FAPESP. “He had an enormous influence on the good development of FAPESP when he was the scientific director and as president of the institution”, corroborates scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. José Fernando Perez, former scientific director (1993-2005) and the current president of Recepta Biopharma, says that the physicist was a “champion” in permanently affirming the autonomy of the Foundation “Sala knew how to protect it with wise and firm intervention policies”, he recalls.

Major projects
In the year in which he became scientific director he presented a plan to support major projects, which was approved by the board of FAPESP. According to the 1969 board Minutes  the objective was “to earmark 30% of the total  amount for supporting research to cover the cost of projects, by which important problems in certain areas can be resolved or well handled”. As of this date, the new support policy resulted in initiatives and special projects. One of the immediate consequences was the Biochemistry Development Plan in São Paulo, the Bioq-FAPESP, with 14 scientific projects and an initial investment of US$ 1 million over a three-year period.

“Bioq eliminated hierarchies, mainly scientific ones: anyone who wanted  could submit a project and anyone who could do or was doing a good project won”, says biochemist, Walter Colli, a researcher from the Institute of Chemistry at USP, which he directed on two occasions (1986-1990 and 1994-1998). “A large quantity of young people put together their own research laboratories, preparing reports and publishing work”. According to Colli, all those who participated in the program were successful. The participation of Oscar Sala was not limited to proposing the plan. “He put together an outside committee with three foreign scientists, presided over by North American, Marshall Nirenberg, Nobel Prize winner in Medicine (1968), who came to Brazil several times. This committee accompanied the progress of the different groups, interviewing them one by one”, recalls the biochemist. “As this was a project for the city of São Paulo there was a national distribution of equipment between the various groups”. Bioq-FAPESP resulted in the formation of dozens of projects, groups and a laboratory, involving approximately 200 hundred researchers, in addition to an exchange with foreign scientists and visiting professors, according to the book, “Prelúdio para uma história – Ciência e tecnologia no Brasil” [Prelude to a story – Science and technology in Brazil], organized by Shozo Motoyama (Edusp/FAPESP, 2004).

The meteorology area project was another important initiative of the scientific department at that period. As this field found itself in a precarious state at the beginning of the 1970’s, despite its strategic importance for agriculture, FAPESP financed the visit of James Weiman, from the Department of Technology at the University of Wisconsin, in the USA. Weiman analyzed the situation and recommended the installation of meteorological radar. The special project, called Radasp, started in 1974 and the equipment was installed in the Institute of Meteorological Research at the Educational Foundation of Bauru, subsequently taken over by the Paulista State University (Unesp). The results appeared immediately – São Paulo newspapers started using data from published weather forecasts and disclosing this information. “A researcher emeritus, Sala made a great contribution to the scientific development of the state of São Paulo and Brazil”, says the administrative director of FAPESP, Joaquim José de Camargo Engler. “I lived and worked alongside him as board member and after as administrative director in a relationship that was always cordial and respectful.”

Family CollectionSala and César Lattes, one of the discoverers of the pi meson: interactionFamily Collection

Oscar Sala relinquished his post as scientific director in 1975. However, he went back to the Foundation in 1985 as chairman of the board and headed up FAPESP’s computerization process. The objective was to develop management data and systems for the scholarships and help given. His support was important for something that began to appear in a big way in Brazil: discussions about the Brazilian connection with international networks, the precursors of the Internet, which was only just beginning to get off the ground in the 1980’s. The Rede ANSP (Academic Network at São Paulo) program was created, one of the main points of an Internet connection with the outside world and responsible for linking university academic networks, institutes and research centers in São Paulo. “His sense of opportunity functioned once again when he perceived the importance that computerization and being connected to a network would have on research and he directed the Foundation along these lines”, assess Shozo Motoyama.

“Sala’s actions were decisive when FAPESP initially guaranteed access of the physics community in São Paulo, via e-mail, to Fermilab, in the United States”, says the former scientific director, José Fernando Perez. “It was from this seed that the Foundation grew into a reference point for the Brazilian Internet. Up until a very short time ago FAPESP was responsible for attributing network domains, even for the commercial Internet”. According to electronic engineer, Demi Getschko, invited by Sala to join the Processing Center at FAPESP in 1986, the partnership with Fermilab was only possible thanks to the contacts of the then president. “He was the one who underwrote the whole project; he assembled the team and supported all of that”, Getscjko, today the CEO of the Ponto BR Information and Coordination Nucleus ( told Agência FAPESP.

In addition to the delicate relations faced in his period as scientific director of FAPESP, from 1973 to 1979, Sala was president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC). His main achievement was to ensure that the traditional annual meeting occurred. The 1977 meeting, which was initially prohibited from taking place in Fortaleza by the federal government, took place at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) and was particularly turbulent, with the police invading the campus. “He presided over the SBPC in a bold and skillful way at a difficult period in Brazilian life, resisting the arbitrary and defending the development of science in Brazil”, says Brito Cruz. “Above all else Sala was one of the great Brazilian scientists who brought together scientific excellence and institutional leadership with being a career model for younger generations.”