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CNPq’s 50 years

Book recovers part of the history of Science&Technology in Brazil, between 1951 and 2001, based on the testimony by the Council's 20 presidents

Had it not been for the decisive role of science and technology in defining the Second World War – which came to an end with the explosion of the atom bomb – the then president Getúlio Vargas and the Brazilian elite would hardly have convinced themselves of the need for creating the National Research Council, now the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). At the time, the policy for modernizing the country conceived by Vargas was based on imports substitution and dispensed with scientific and technological research, which was handled by a small and select group of scientists, concentrated in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Today, Brazil has 11,700 research groups spread all over the country, made up of 48,781 researchers, working on 41,539 lines of investigation in the various areas of knowledge. In 1951, the year when CNPq was created, this would be an unthinkable picture, even for the most optimistic. Part of the story of this leap forward in technology and in consolidating research in Brazil is in the book 50 Anos do CNPq – Contados pelos seus Presidentes [The CNPq’s 50 years – Told by its Presidents], published on FAPESP’s initiative, and due to be launched in September. The work has been organized by Shozo Motoyama, a professor at the History Department of the College of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP).

The book has as its central personages the 20 presidents of the Council, between1951 and 2001. In the course of its 717 pages, they talk about their education, professional career, work, difficulties and successes in the command of the CNPq. Motoyama and his team, made up of three researchers from USP’s Interunity Center for the History of Science – Edson Manoel Simões, Marilda Nagamini and Renato Teixeira Vargas – managed to interview 15 of them, in different situations and places, and put together hundreds of hours of recordings, which were edited to give the book its shape. Five of the personages had already died, so the team took recourse to the Annals of the National Research Council from between 1951 to 1974, to recover their statements.

“The Annals are a priceless repository of historical knowledge, because they are a full reproduction of the sessions of the Deliberative Council, the organization’s highest body, during its first twenty or so years”, Motoyama explains. Information was selected from these documents – without carrying out any kind of alteration to the text, he points out – that helped to build up the professional profile of each one of them and their vision of institutional issues.

Recovery of memory
Besides these testimonies, Motoyama’s team collected “the largest possible quantity of documents about the CNPq”, assessed information that made it possible to draw the outlines of the scientific and technological policies put into effect in the period, and studied the several development plans for the country adopted by several governments. The result is that the book The CNPq’s 50 Years goes beyond a record, or an oral bank of historical information about the entity, it carries out a consistent analysis of the evolution of scientific and technological research in the country over the last half century.

Motoyama says that he has always been concerned with the redemption of the history of science and technology in Brazil. The idea of writing a book about the CNPq, using the oral memory method, arose in 1981, when he was a member of the Council’s Scientific Consultancy. “At the time, I did interviews with ex-presidents, scientists and members of staff, and the intention was to do a commemorative edition of the entity’s 30 years”, he reveals. He waited another 20 years, until FAPESP embraced the project, which was concluded in one year.

“Specific compensations”
The book has some very interesting passages, like the one in which Admiral Álvaro Alberto reports his participation, in 1946, in the Atomic Energy Commission of the United Nations, appointed by President Eurico Gaspar Dutra. The objective of the meeting was to discuss mechanisms to control nuclear power, and the proposal was for the universal expropriation of all the uranium and thorium mines, in favor of a future international control body. The Brazilian commission contested this, advocating the nationalization of these minerals and “specific compensations”, that is, the atomic material would only be handed over in exchange for access to nuclear technology.

In his statement, Álvaro Alberto tells how Brazil presented a victorious amendment, which guaranteed that no country would be obliged to accept this expropriation. Convinced that the defense of the atomic minerals depended, basically, on the country’s technical and scientific qualification, the admiral began to advocate, with vehemence, the “immediate” foundation of the CNPq. Its initial task would be to “develop the atomic mentality in Brazil, to intensify the formation of technologists and scientists, to bring in foreign men of science to teach us, and to send Brazilians to learn in the major centers for investigation in friendly countries”.

The proposal for the creation of the entity was well received in Congress, and, also according to the admiral, “the Magna Carta for research” was approved on January 15, 1951, in the last few days of the Dutra government. This same episode with thorium, incidentally, marked the first confrontation between the CNPq and the State. Vargas did not hesitate to diminish its functions, when the agency manifested itself against the export of these minerals to the United States, in exchange for a loan of US$ 500 million. In spite of everything, while Vargas was in power, Álvaro Alberto persisted in his efforts to guarantee the autonomous development of atomic energy in Brazil, until, with the suicide of the president and the accession of Café Filho to the presidency of the Republic, his situation became impossible to sustain, and he was replaced by José Alberto Baptista Pereira.

Science and technology also gained momentum during the military regime, particularly during the periods in which Marshal Costa e Silva and General Ernesto Geisel were governing. Costa e Silva, for example, created the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FNDCT), in 1969, to finance priority projects, and he organized the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), in 1967.

In this same period, the CNPq not only received funds from the federal budget, but it also had access to loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, from the World Bank, and from international cooperation agreements like the one between the Ministry of Education and United States Agency for International Development. Geisel, in turn, was responsible for drawing together the policies for industry and those for science and technology. In the words of José Dion de Melo Teles, who presided the entity between 1975 and 1979, the model for the Council’s work was organized “with the basic objective of expanding the CNPq’s surface in contact with the community producing scientific and technological knowledge, and to use this knowledge, not just that of academic origins, to the benefit of the country’s development”.

Things got worse during the Collor government, so much so that Marcos Luiz dos Mares Guia, who presided the entity between 1991 and 1993 attributed the fact that he had been attacked by an ulcer in those days to the chronic pressure of a lack of money and the commitment to get the job done.

In the last few years, Science and Technology have come to be integral parts of the nation’s political agenda. In the vision of its current president, Esper Cavalheiro, the CNPq’s great challenge now is to recover is role in fostering scientific and technological development and to provide funds for the researcher to do research.