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Beyond borders

In its six decades, São Paulo’s FAPESP has helped to strengthen Brazil’s broader science, technology, and innovation ecosystem

São Paulo Governor Carlos Alberto Alves de Carvalho Pinto (seated), signing FAPESP’s articles of association on May 23, 1962

São Paulo State Public Archives

Since its founding 60 years ago this May, FAPESP has funded some 320,000 research projects at institutions in São Paulo, across all fields, helping to consolidate the state’s nationally leading position for scientific output. But the Foundation’s influence on higher education and basic and applied research has extended beyond São Paulo’s borders and has imprinted a lasting mark across Brazil’s wider science and technology landscape. On many occasions, programs developed at FAPESP have inspired other initiatives at a national scale.

In the late 1990s, the FAPESP Genoma program, which brought together 192 researchers in a virtual network of 60 laboratories to sequence the DNA of multiple organisms, led to several other similar initiatives around the country. In 2000, the year Nature published the results from the genome sequencing of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) established a nation-wide network for the Brazilian Genome Program, comprising 240 scientists from 18 states, initially tasked with cracking the genome of Chromobacterium violaceum, a bacterium with important applications in biotechnology. “CNPq not surprisingly chose biochemist Andrew Simpson, the FAPESP program’s DNA coordinator, to head the federal initiative,” says physicist José Fernando Perez, who served as scientific director at FAPESP from 1993 to 2005. He recalls a telephone call he received from Wanderley de Souza, then Rio’s Science and Technology secretary. “He said the governor of Rio de Janeiro was impressed by our program and was proposing a partnership.” A collaboration was established with Jesus Ferro, a researcher at São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Jaboticabal, and one of the scientists heading the FAPESP Genoma program, to develop a DNA library for his counterparts in Rio.

Another case in point is the FAPESP Technological Innovation in Small Businesses (RISB, or PIPE in Portuguese) program, launched in 1997. Like the FAPESP Genoma program, RISB was modeled after a US initiative. It mirrored the format of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, created in 1982 to funnel funding from US research agencies to support innovative small businesses. RISB was in its fifth year when the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects (FINEP), a federal agency, launched a similar initiative: the Research Support for Businesses Program (PAPPE). But in São Paulo the federal program took on a different format. Under an agreement between FAPESP’s Science Board and the then chairman of FINEP, Sergio Machado Rezende, PAPPE funded only Phase 3 RISB projects—those that had already received FAPESP funding, were at an advanced stage, and were close to commercial application. In other states, FINEP also funded earlier-stage projects.

While the Foundation does not have a mandate to directly fund researchers and institutions in other states, the impacts from its programs have reached across borders. In 2008, FAPESP ran a survey to profile its scientific initiation, master’s, doctoral, and post-doctoral grant beneficiaries from 1992 to 2002. A map showing the subsequent professional careers of former grant beneficiaries in 12 different fields revealed that most—between 70.3% and 83.8%, depending on the field—were still in São Paulo, but a significant number of them were employed in other states and even other countries. In the fields of healthcare, crop science, and veterinary science, in particular, former grant beneficiaries were found in 24 states. “For many years, FAPESP-funded researchers and higher education institutions in São Paulo accounted for 70% of PhD researchers in Brazil,” wrote FAPESP Chairman Marco Antonio Zago in an article published this year in the journal Estudos Avançados. “As far as 1996, 67% of PhDs were completed in São Paulo, and from 1996 to 2017 the state accounted for 44.3% of the total. So you could say that FAPESP has indirectly supported the development of federal universities in all states of Brazil.”

FAPESP has also grant-funded São Paulo-based researchers whose research interests were outside the state, as well as collaborations with scientists in other states and internationally. For example, FAPESP has been the single biggest funder of Amazon research: 895 projects and 1,612 grants, many linked to the Foundation’s special programs. “The Amazon has always been a key research interest for us, given the importance of the region for Brazil and for the world,” says physicist Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, who served as chairman of the FAPESP Board of Trustees from 1996 to 2002 and as scientific director from 2005 to 2020. In 2014 he attended a symposium in Washington where he presented the results of research projects on Amazon tropical forests. “The Amazon is part of the scope of two of FAPESP’s flagship programs,” he explains, referring to the Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration, and Sustainable Use (BIOTA) and the Global Climate Change Research program.

But perhaps FAPESP’s biggest contribution to Brazil’s science and technology ecosystem is the way it served as a blueprint that research-funding agencies in other states then replicated. Granted, it took several years for FAPESP’s pioneering model to find its way to other states. Rio Grande do Sul became the first state to institute a counterpart funding agency (FAPERGS), in 1964, while the states of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro would only follow suit in the 1980s. Brazil now has similar foundations in 26 of its 27 states (all but Roraima), but it was only in the 2000s that most of them were created, often under provisions of their state constitutions. “FAPESP helped to structure many of these foundations,” says Brito Cruz.

On December 15, 1997, then governor Mario Covas announced the first companies selected for the RISB program in Bandeirantes PalaceSão Paulo State Public Archives

In addition to assisting with formal matters, FAPESP was active in discussions about approaches to research funding in these states. Flávio Fava de Moraes, FAPESP’s scientific director between 1985 and 1993, recalls a landmark battle the Foundation championed in the state legislature that sent waves across country, when it lobbied to raise FAPESP’s allocation of state tax from 0.5% to 1% under São Paulo’s 1989 Constitution. “São Paulo’s science community, led by the Foundation, decided to ask for a larger slice of funding,” explains Fava, who, accompanied by then chairman of the FAPESP Executive Board, Alberto Carvalho da Silva (1916–2002), went office to office in the State Assembly and visited Palácio dos Bandeirantes, the seat of the São Paulo state government, to advocate for the change.

“I remember receiving a late-night call from a professor at USP alerting me that the funding increase was being discussed that very moment by the deputies, and was at risk of being carved out. I got in my car and drove as fast as I could to the Assembly,” recalls Fava. He was able to talk to the rapporteur of the new Constitution, deputy Barros Munhoz, who described the impasse: one group of deputies argued that a fixed tax allocation for FAPESP would be unfair to other state agencies—either they should all have a constitutional allocation, or none should. The gridlock was only resolved, says Fava, when, in consultation with then governor Orestes Quércia, a proposition was made that FAPESP’s funding should be applied not only to science but also to technological development—a change that expanded the agency’s scope and challenges. “The 1% was unanimously approved. This was great for the Foundation, helping it to better fulfill its mission to support research across all fields of knowledge.”

FAPESP provided a model for research-funding foundations in other states

The funding increase in São Paulo soon began to be discussed in the legislatures of other states. Alberto Carvalho da Silva visited several other states for discussions with governors and deputies, advocating that they replicate FAPESP’s funding model. “I remember the chairman of the state assembly in Rio Grande do Sul was enthusiastic about the idea of earmarking state taxes for FAPERGS. He had strong support from colleagues who were familiar with São’s Paulo successful model,” says Fava. Ultimately the state’s Constitution set aside an even larger percentage than in São Paulo—1.5%—for its funding agency.

This had limited impact, however, with many states failing to meet the constitutional allocation or having to adjust during budgetary crises. São Paulo alone maintained an impeccable record: since the 1% tax transfer was written into the Constitution in 1989, the state has never been late on its payments to FAPESP. Created as a private foundation, FAPESP manages its budget independently. It can also invest its funding and use the dividends as a long-term source of cash for research grants and projects.

Former foreign minister Celso Lafer, who served as chairman of FAPESP between 2007 and 2015, explains that the Foundation’s model was influenced by the landmark report, “Science, the endless frontier,” published in July 1945 by American engineer Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), in which he asserted an interdependence between basic and applied science and advocated for a free and independent scientific community, and greater participation by industry and private business in research efforts. “Since it was founded, FAPESP has never made a distinction between basic and applied science and has instead funded research across all fields. It began by providing over-the-counter grants, but soon expanded its scope to include more ambitious and longer-term programs and projects,” says Lafer, whose tenure at FAPESP was marked by efforts to internationalize the organization by creating a network of collaborations with research institutes and universities around the world.

The assurance of sufficient funding to meet the scientific community’s research needs allowed the Foundation to increase its focus over time on developing innovative initiatives. Flavio Fava de Moraes mentions the Biochemistry Development Program (Bioq-FAPESP), launched in 1971, as an example. This was the Foundation’s first foray into funding research in an emerging field. “Bioq-FAPESP also encouraged different research groups to collaborate together, and served as a pilot, during my tenure, for the introduction of a category of projects operating as research networks, known at FAPESP as thematic projects,” says Fava.

“FAPESP was able to implement aspirational programs that leveraged this potential,” says José Fernando Perez. The Foundation, he continues, created a fertile environment not found in any other agency. “Subject-matter coordinators would meet on a weekly basis and I, as scientific director, had the opportunity to interact with leading figures in the science community to discuss FAPESP’s vision. This highly interactive environment is maybe one of the things that distinguishes FAPESP from other agencies,” he says. “The somewhat invisible interface that exists between FAPESP and the community is behind a number of its pioneering programs.” It was on recommendation from assistant and subject-matter coordinators, says Perez, that several programs were launched during his tenure, including Genoma, SciELO, Biota, and RISB, many of them based on international experience.

Neuroscientist Luiz Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s current scientific director, recalls how, during his time as an assistant coordinator from 2003 to 2006, he was involved in discussions that would later result in important programs. “There’s a Brazilian saying that goes, ‘it’s easy to engineer a finished building,’ or to prophesy in hindsight,” he says. “Many of FAPESP’s most successful initiatives (thematic projects, Genoma, SciELO, to name a few) were initially met with opposition from the community. Maybe that’s the way it always is with challenges and new terrain. Different forces pulling hither and thither helped to shape the development of FAPESP’s new projects and programs. Indeed, science flourishes from scientific disagreement, provided it does not devolve into personal attacks.”

Diligent program accounting
Audit manager retires after 55 years of service

Moreira: stewarding taxpayers’ moneyFAPESP

In 1967, when FAPESP operated out of a handful of office rooms in a building at 352 Avenida Paulista, Zeferino Ribeiro Moreira, then 18, was hired as a message boy. Born in Abaíra, a town in northeastern Brazil, he had arrived in São Paulo four years earlier. On April 15 Moreira retired after 55 years of service with the FAPESP, and as the Foundation celebrates its 60th anniversary. He remains the employee with the longest length of service to date.

Moreira studied accounting and worked at several departments before being appointed to manage the Audit department, where a 16-strong team audits the expense accounts of projects funded by the Foundation. It’s painstaking work that requires diligence to ensure regulations on the use of tax money are being met, helping to protect grant beneficiaries from future liability. The Audit department reviews approximately 10,000 case files per year on average—Moreira worked in the department for 37 years. All FAPESP grant beneficiaries in the last decades will have at some point received a letter with his signature, either announcing that their project or grant had been approved or alerting them to a matter needing their attention.

“The entire audit system, which is highly respected, owes a great deal to Moreira’s leadership,” says Fernando Menezes de Almeida, FAPESP’s administrative Director. “Moreira has always been a good steward of the taxpayer’s dollar,” says Camilo Cardoso, who has worked at FAPESP for 31 years and is replacing him as Audit manager.