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Comparative advantage

Article analyzes the paths traveled by science in Brazil and in South Korea and identifies opportunities for partnerships

In an article published in the journal Scientometrics, a group of researchers from Brazil and South Korea investigate the recent trend in scientific production in the two countries—antipodes not only in geographical terms, but in their development models as well. The conclusion was that the South Koreans, despite their vocation for technology, were able in the past decade to improve the balance in the distribution of articles among other fields of knowledge, while the Brazilians improved in areas where they were already strong, such as agrarian and natural sciences. “Brazil seems to have missed an opportunity to invest more in areas that could support the production sector, such as engineering and computer science,” says Daniel Fink, principal author of the study, who is chief of the science and technology department at the Embassy of Brazil in Seoul. “Science in Brazil still finds it hard to get involved in industrial policy, contrary to what is happening in South Korea.” The article, written in partnership with three South Korean researchers, is the result of Fink’s doctoral studies at Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist), in the city of Daejon.

Science and technology systems in Brazil and South Korea developed in recent decades as a result of investments that were concentrated in certain disciplines. Brazil follows a model similar to that of developed countries, placing heavy emphasis on medicine and giving significant weight to subjects such as chemistry, physics, botany, and zoology. A unique aspect is that in Brazil, agrarian sciences occupy a larger arena of research than the world average, while South Korea follows the so-called Japanese model, which gives engineering—including computer science—and chemistry, with an emphasis on materials science—a more prominent role. The study led by Fink sought to compare what happened with the quantity and quality of the scientific production of the two countries in two distinct periods, from 2000 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2009. The analysis was done using the National Science Indicators, published by Thomson Reuters, which provide data aggregated by country. The variables measured included the total number of publications and citations from Brazil, South Korea, and the rest of the world from 2000 to 2009. The data were then organized by field of knowledge. The study concentrated on some of those fields and excluded others, such as social science and economics, in which the output in the form of scientific articles was not considered representative—it is more traditional for books to be published in those areas.

Both countries saw an increase in the number of published articles and their share in world output grow. Brazilian science exhibited more participation in most of those areas except in some, like computer science and physics, while South Korea grew in every area, without distinction. In the case of agriculture, Brazil’s participation rose from 3.1% of the world total in the first period to 6.8% in the second. Brazil also advanced in areas like zoology and botany, the environment and ecology, and pharmacology and toxicology, reinforcing its position in a model known as “bio-environmental.” But it lost ground in space science and physics. “Although Brazilian researchers in the fields of physics and space science maintained the same level of publications in absolute numbers, they lost ground in comparative terms. That is because we were unable to keep pace with the increase in production by other countries,” says Fink. In fields of science in which Brazil did not already have a comparative advantage, such as computer science, engineering, and materials science, production declined. “Brazil is unlikely to gain strength in information technology and manufacturing in the near future,” the author states. With regard to citations, Brazil also improved in agriculture, botany and zoology, and in pharmacology and toxicology, but declined in mathematics, an area in which it had been strong. In ecology and the environment, the visibility of Brazilian science diminished despite an increase in production. Similar reverses were observed in the number of citations in engineering, materials science, and computer science.

With respect to South Korea, no significant gains were observed. In relation to scientific production, the fields in which it experienced greater growth were computer science, followed by agriculture, pharmacology and toxicology. But the characteristics of the so-called Japanese model were maintained. In comparison with overall scientific production, South Korea was unable to keep pace with the growth in other countries in engineering, chemistry, and materials science, although it maintained its competitiveness in those fields. But South Korea was able to downplay its weak points by better performance in areas such as space science, molecular biology, and genetics. With respect to citations, it is performance declined in areas such as materials science, engineering, physics and computer science, but increased its impact in agriculture, space science, microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics. “This transition shows that South Korea is attaining a more balanced stage and improving areas in which it is deficient without losing its status as leader in areas where it was already competent,” says Fink.

“The disciplinary structure of scientific production is related to each country’s economic development strategies,” observes Peter Schulz, professor of the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) which last year published, in the same journal Scientometrics, an article on trends in the profile of the science and technology systems in various countries (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 198). According to Schulz, however, some of the conclusions reached in the Fink article need to be confirmed by further studies before they can be determined to be trends. He reminds us that the number of Brazilian scientific journals indexed in the Thomson Reuters database in the second half of the 2000 decade soared. That may have created a bias in the perception that Brazil got stronger in some areas, without the specialization actually having increased. “The article shows a stagnation of Brazilian production in physics, which is consistent with other indicators. But that perception may have been reinforced by the fact that few new Brazilian physics journals were indexed in the past decade in comparison with what occurred in other areas,” Schulz states. He also observes that the relative decline in performance by South Korea in areas in which its position is well-established, such as materials science, may have been influenced by the increase in scientific production by China in those disciplines, which boosts the total number of articles worldwide. Having made those reservations, Schulz says the study by Fink does well in identifying areas of knowledge in which the two countries complement each other. “It’s important to know in which areas the two countries are strong or are increasing their production and impact, in order to encourage partnerships,” he says.

That, incidentally, is one of the concerns addressed in Daniel Fink’s study. Also as a result of his doctorate, he is examining the scientific collaboration between Brazil and South Korea. The first article co-authored by researchers from the two countries was published in 1991. As of 2000, only 10 papers by Brazilian and South Korea authors were being published per year. In 2011, that figure had reached 72 articles. The collaboration was driven in two different ways. The main one was the inclusion of Brazilian and South Korean research groups in major international cooperative efforts, in general led by Americans. The second consisted of bilateral collaborations sparked by an interest on the part of researchers in both countries in working together. Groups from the University of São Paulo (USP) are highly visible in any kind of collaboration, but in bilateral efforts one more often sees groups from Unicamp in areas like chemistry and materials science. “Bilateral collaborative efforts come about when there is excellence on both sides, while multilateral efforts may involve fields in which both countries are trying to consolidate their positions and are associating with researchers in a third country, usually the United States, in order to gain experience,” Fink says. One recent collaboration involved the group headed by physicist Marcelo Knobel, a professor at Unicamp, who exchanged samples and data with researchers from the National University of Changwon, in articles about magnetic nanostructures that were published in the Journal of the Korean Physical Society. In this case, the bridge between Brazil and South Korea was Surender Kumar Charma, an Indian who did his post-doctoral work in Knobel’s group between 2007 and 2011 with a grant from FAPESP, and who had connections in South Korea. “It is an area in which both countries have a tradition,” says Knobel, who has since published other articles in collaboration with South Korean researchers. “I think that the trend is toward increased collaboration, not only because of the obvious Korean presence here in Brazil, but also because of the growing importance of both countries on the international science scene.”

Collaboration between Brazilians and South Koreans involving major companies has not yet had an impact on the scientific production of the two countries. “Samsung, for example, has a laboratory at Unicamp, but it has little impact in terms of generating articles,” says Fink. Marcelo Knobel notes that the presence of South Korean companies in Brazil is still a recent development and emphasizes that not everything that is investigated goes to the company. “Laboratories like the one Samsung has at Unicamp are just now getting established, and it will take awhile before we see results; they are not immediate,” he says. There is a trend toward intensification of relations between the scientific communities of the two countries, beginning with small and medium-sized South Korean companies,” Fink observes. One example is HT Micron, a Brazilian-Korean joint venture working on encapsulation of chips. It opened a factory in the Rio Grande do Sul city of São Leopoldo, taking advantage of tax incentives. “They committed to investing 5% in research and development, of which 1% goes to the University of Sinos Valley (Unisinos) to establish a semiconductor institute,” Fink says. South Korea’s interest in Brazil is likely to encourage that type of alliance in the coming years, the researcher notes.

A graduate in electrical engineering from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Daniel Fink moved to South Korea in 2006, when he won a scholarship offered by Kaist. “There are very few Brazilians in South Korean universities, and I was one of the first to come,” says Fink, who even as a master’s candidate began a line of research that compared the technology systems of Brazil and South Korea. In 2007, he wrote an article in a local newspaper about the opportunities for South Korean companies and researchers associated with the introduction of digital TV in Brazil. The Brazilian ambassador in Seoul contacted him to talk about the subject, and that meeting resulted in Fink becoming the Embassy advisor in science and technology. In the coming months, he and South Korean researchers from his group will come to Brazil to interview Brazilian scientists who are collaborating with colleagues from South Korea in order to study the dynamics of those partnerships.