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Cora Marrett

Cora Marrett: Closer ties

Deputy director of the National Science Foundation wants to expand cooperation with Brazil

SAM KITTNERAt the opening of FAPESP Week, a symposium held in Washington from October 24 to 26, the deputy director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered a speech in which she highlighted current NSF/FAPESP cooperation programs and expressed her desire for this cooperation to grow further. “Science knows no national boundaries,” stated the sociologist, who ranks second in the hierarchy of the agency that is one of the main sources of funding for basic research and education in the sciences and engineering in the United States. Cora Marrett has held this position since May, when her appointment by the president of the United States was confirmed by the Senate. However, she has had a long career at NSF, where she previously held the position of acting director from June to October 2010 (prior to the appointment of the current director, Subra Suresh), deputy director for education and human resources from 2007 to 2009, and deputy director for social ,behavioral and economic sciences from 1992 to 1997.

NSF is one of the entities that promoted FAPESP Week, along with the Wilson Center (where the symposium was held), Ohio State University and FAPESP. The bonds between Brazilian and American researchers, expressed in the symposium’s several presentations, impressed the NSF deputy director, who regards Brazil, in particular São Paulo, as a potential partner for new initiatives. She mentioned, for example, the Pilot Program of Research Exchange for Young Investigators in Chemistry. In this program, undergraduate students from São Paulo universities intern at American institutions while students from the United States come to São Paulo. She believes that the program has could be extended to other fields of knowledge. In the following interview, she talks about this initiative and about other recent partnering agreements with FAPESP, as part of two programs, Catalyzing New International Collaborations (CNIC) and International Collaboration in Chemistry (ICC). She also talks about prospects in the field of biodiversity research.

What were your impressions of FAPESP Week and of the lines of research pursued by São Paulo researchers and presented at the symposium in Washington?
I had very favorable impressions. It’s quite clear that the Foundation has played a critical role in building this vibrant research community. This fiftieth anniversary is very significant. We, from NSF, are also interested because of the international perspectives of the research that is being undertaken. Not only thinking about São Paulo, Brazil, but the about the whole international context. Overall, I found it all extremely exciting. Looking at the agenda, it’s very exciting to have brought together science themes that range from quantum computing to biology. It turns out that many researchers from Brazil have counterparts in the United States. It really evidenced the strong interactions between NSF and FAPESP.

Talking about the interactions between the two agencies, FAPESP has created a call for research in parallel with the NSF program Catalyzing New International Collaborations, to encourage collaborations between researchers and students from São Paulo and from the United States. What is expected impact of this initiative?
FAPESP launched this parallel program in record time. We know it takes some time to get things up and running, but the initiative is extremely important. The program takes into account activities such as technical visits, workshops and initial data gathering, in the hope that robust and subsequently competitive research projects will be generated. CNIC is a recent program and it replaced another program of visits and workshops. And demand was strong. We received more proposal from Brazil, actually, than from any other country in the hemisphere. These proposals are currently undergoing evaluation. So it is premature for us to talk about benefits for the two countries.

Last September, FAPESP started taking part in the International Collaboration in Chemistry (ICC) program of NSF’s Chemistry Division. This program aims to establish collaborations between scientists from the United States and from other countries. What do you think is the potential for collaborations between the US and the state of São Paulo in this field?
It’s an area in which we see a lot of potential for collaborations. And the emphasis on chemistry geared to sustainability is important, because it’s a priority for the ICC program. Brazil has been investing in this. Likewise, this line has had priority for the United States and for NSF in particular. We have activities involving sustainability in the fields of science, engineering and education. Sustainable chemistry is part of this broader initiative. The potential is obvious. We were surprised to get only a few proposals. Only three preliminary proposals were submitted last September. As we believe in the potential, we are assuming that interest will grow going forward. The program began in Europe and spread to several countries. The connection with FAPESP was established recently. There were few proposals, but other countries had the same problem. This is a starting point and we are awaiting more proposals.

JVINFANTE / WILSON CENTERCora Marrett at the opening of FAPESP Week, next to Paulo Sotero, from the Wilson Center, to ambassador Mauro Vieira, and to the head of FAPESP, Celso LaferJVINFANTE / WILSON CENTER

An older joint initiative, which began in 2008, is the Pilot Program of Research Exchange for Young Investigators in Chemistry, whereby undergraduate university students from São Paulo universities do an internship in US institutions, while US students spend some time in São Paulo. What is your assessment of the participation of Brazil and of the United States in this program?
This is a NSF program coordinated by the University of Florida. For us, it’s an extremely important program because many of the programs we have for undergraduates send students in one direction only. But this is bidirectional, giving our students the chance to have experiences elsewhere and bringing students to the US as well. The NSF program is available in all disciplines and we think we can expand this particular exchange to biology, physics, and mathematics. Actually, there have been other programs; I was reminded there is one in Rio de Janeiro with Mathematics students from the US taking part in some kind of Olympiad, but it was a one-way thing. Today, the joint initiative involves chemistry students, but we see the model as something that can be extended to other research fields. Now that I have made my comments, I would like to get some feedback from you about the program…

The São Paulo students that took part in the program are enthusiastic about it, as it gave them important international experience, putting them in contact with advanced research projects. One student in the program, 21-year old Ricardo Barroso Ferreira, from Unicamp, co-authored an article in the journal Science. Thanks to his time at the University of California at Los Angeles, he took part in a project that resulted in the creation of a three-dimensional synthetic crystal capable of capturing carbon dioxide emissions – the subject of the Science article.
Our experience is similar. As we know, it makes a difference for undergraduate students to have some international experience. This is more and more important in the global context in which science operates. It’s important for our students to experience another country, but it’s equally important to bring young people from other countries to help us explore fundamental science questions. It’s a very valuable program and, as I said, we hope it will be expanded.

How can the experience of the Biota-FAPESP Program be useful to US scientists in the gathering, analysis and integration of biodiversity data?
There are several ways in which this is important for US scientists. The program addresses subjects that deal with basic issues. The idea to do a comprehensive inventory of diversity is basic for so much of what we have to do. But, beyond that, there are the policy implications. We are very much interested in what can be that link between the knowledge developed through research and the policies that can emanate from it. Another point is that data generated by projects would have to be deposited in public databases. This is one of the key requirements that we are establishing and working on with places around the world, to ask how to make available the data that projects generate, so that the primary data obtained can be submitted to secondary analyses. So we are very interested in how this compilation of data, the storage of this data, the access to it all can be important for scientists in general and for the study of diversity in particular. We do have many lessons that we can extract from this. There are Brazilian and US groups working together in the field of environmental biology, as we saw in one of the FAPESP Week presentations on Biota-FAPESP.

FAPESP was a pioneer in Brazil in its recent release of a code of good scientific conduct. What is the importance of this type of initiative and what was the impact of establishing scientific conduct regulation codes in the US starting in the early 2000’s?
Let me begin by saying that we think it’s very important. And that there are many reasons for trying to introduce codes of scientific practices. But when we ask what the evidence about what the actual impact has been, this is something we are still working on to assemble. Our director of social behavior and economic sciences has been working on having a new program that should describe and determine the rules of conduct for scientists in the information age. The new digital technologies are transforming the practice of science, providing scientists with new ways to identify and contact partners for collaborations and also to create and disseminate knowledge. Starting with this, we will be able to evaluate better how science is being conducted and what is the impact of codes of good practices and other tools designed to ensure scientists behave ethically. As we are interested in finding out what the consequences are, any information that FAPESP may have on the Brazilian experience of good scientific practices codes will be very welcome. The public expects that knowledge be generated in an environment with high levels of ethical conduct.

The NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program was one of the things that inspired Pipe, a FAPESP program for innovation in small firms that was created in 1997. In NSF’s experience, what is the capacity of an agency to stimulate innovation in companies?
What a fascinating question. I wish I had an answer for it. What I can say is that the Small Business Innovation Research program was designed thinking about how to bring innovation from science and engineering into the generation of ideas, processes and products. The program became very popular and inspired other similar ones in other US agencies. NSF is seen as an innovation driver in the United States and we must ensure that we continue to be able to provide support for this idea.