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Building platforms

Federal program intended to create partnerships between businesses and researchers raises discussion about investments in basic science

fapesp-provazi-abre-final NELSON PROVAZIOn June 26, 2014, the Brazilian government launched its National Knowledge Platform Program, which proposes the creation of a series of partnerships over the next 10 years between businesses and research groups in 10 major areas, in an effort to solve technological challenges in industry and launch innovative products on the market. “The platforms will be structured around the logic of problem-solving. We want to stimulate technological advances that will have an impact on industrial development and increase our economic competitiveness,” said Clelio Campolina Diniz, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), in comments to Pesquisa FAPESP. No determination has yet been made concerning the amounts to be invested starting in 2015, when implementation of the program is expected to begin, though the MCTI has offered a preliminary estimate of $100 million to $200 million per year for each platform.

Platforms are expected to be created in 10 industries deemed strategic: health, energy, agriculture, aeronautics, advanced manufacturing, shipbuilding and underwater equipment, information and communication technology, mining, defense, and the Amazon. Each industry will have several platforms, and the government estimates that at least 20 arrangements will be created. In the health sector, the idea is to create platforms in the fields of drugs, vaccines, equipment and services. The goal for the aeronautics industry is to develop technologies linked to the production of green aircraft (i.e., sustainably manufactured and used), unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), and the KC-390 military transport plane, and to the design of the FX-2 supersonic aircraft.

The inspiration for the platforms arose from other countries’ experiences with programs such as innovation hubs in the United States, which seek to bring together the best scientists and engineers in efforts to speed up breakthroughs that will expedite product launches on the market; or the European technology platforms, aimed at developing critical breakthroughs in areas such as materials, IT, wind energy and food, under industry leadership. “We don’t want to copy models, but we also can’t be trying to reinvent the wheel,” Campolina says. “In our quest for competitiveness and technological modernization, we’re looking at what the world is doing so we can improve our ability to compete globally,” the minister commented.

The program’s launch has been received with caution by the scientific community. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) circulated a document emphasizing the importance of promoting greatly expanded investment in programs that currently operate under the MCTI and the Ministry of Education to train new researchers and build international cooperation. The document said that without these programs it will be impossible to have high-level researchers to work on the knowledge platforms. “It is essential to keep in mind that countries showing substantial growth in GDP, innovation and foreign trade have also made increasingly more investments in science and technology, as is the case with China and South Korea,” says the document, which was authored by the mathematician Jacob Palis, president of the ABC. Ricardo Galvão, president of the Brazilian Physics Society, criticized the program when it was introduced at an event sponsored by the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). “We need to better organize the existing programs. We cannot create new programs without looking at what has already been done or without trying to solve the existing problems,” he asserted.

The caution on the part of the scientific community is largely related to the experience gained from the Science without Borders program. Launched with the promise of utilizing internal resources, it ultimately resorted to funds from the National Science and Technology Development Fund (FNDCT), a major funding source for research projects. “We are in favor of the platforms, but we need to ensure that new resources are allocated for them,” says Helena Nader, president of the SBPC. “The United States has platforms, but they also have the national laboratories that form the infrastructural foundation for science and technology. They produce high-level basic science that anchors the platforms,” Nader points out. She notes that FNDCT funding is likely to decrease over the next few years due to the dismantling of CT-Petro, the oil sector fund, as a result of the new law on royalties. “There is a provision for the creation of a corporate fund, but no implementing regulations have been drafted. It allocates funding for education and health, but nothing for science and technology.” According to Nader, increasing budgetary constraints and an emphasis on business-oriented research add up to an ominous signal, one that says Brazilian scientists have little to contribute to the country. “It was the scientists who write papers, produce high-impact research and train new researchers that achieved notable breakthroughs in agriculture and tropical farming—bringing soybeans to the Cerrado savannah, for example. It was researchers from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics who trained the human resources that created and now supply Embraer. We need to have funding for basic research as well as business-oriented research. I cannot accept the idea of having funding for only one,” she comments.

Minister Campolina says that the knowledge platforms will not compete with existing programs. “We are working to expand funding. We can’t take anything away from other programs,” he says. He anticipates that the program will begin slowly, with the first platforms being implemented in 2015 and the program gradually expanding over the following three years. “In the early stages when few platforms have been implemented, we won’t need a lot of money. It’s a medium-term program. We can’t start without having the objective conditions needed to proceed. We’re going to establish a timetable and begin with the assurance that it will be carried out.”