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Sponsoring development

Cry for Independence

Survey evaluates the "Support to Young Researchers" program

The Support for Young Researchers Program at the State of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) was established in 1996 with a novel proposal for promoting the independence and development of newly graduated doctoral students who find themselves at a point in their careers when they face challenges, such as lack of formal employment links and significant difficulties in managing large-scale projects. A study carried out by researcher Carlos Alberto de Pian, which formed the basis for his Master’s degree dissertation at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), analyzed the program and revealed that it achieved the majority of its goals; however, the approximately 800 young researchers who have benefited from the program have faced unforeseen obstacles.

According to the study, one can quantify the program’s success thorough a number of different pieces of information. As established in the original proposal, only high-level researchers with above average academic productivity benefited from the program. So much so that only 27% of the submitted projects were approved, much less than is the case with other FAPESP programs, such as the research support projects (57%) and the thematic projects (45%). The priority goal of sending young researchers to universities and research centers that are not fully consolidated, in order to improve the quality of  scientific standards at such institutions, was also achieved. Traditional research centers, such as USP and Unicamp, submitted a much lower percentage of projects as compared to other types of programs. In contrast, the São Paulo State University (Unesp) accounted for 20% of the projects and private institutions, such as the Mogi das Cruzes, São Francisco, Vale do Paraíba and Paulista Universities accounted for 18%. “Apparently the scientific community understood the program’s objective, which gave rise to this different pattern of demand”, stated Pian, who has worked for FAPESP for 27 years.

The program’s most innovative feature was that project coordinators did not have to have any formal employment link with an institution in order to get a grant. The idea is to enable young researchers to receive a significant amount of financial aid (generally ranging from R$ 100,000 to R$ 200,000 over four years) and negotiate  with an institution to gain access to the facilities and infrastructure required by their research team , even though they did not actually hold any positions  there or have earnings other than the FAPESP grant. Of the 114 projects analyzed by Pian, 66 were granted to doctorate students who were already established in some university or research center, while the other 48 were granted to independent researchers. However this unique situation had unexpected implications. One of issues, according to Pian, was that the grant recipients had difficulties becoming effectively integrated with the research efforts of the institutions that housed them. A clear sign of lack of continuity, the young researchers with no formal employment ties showed lower productivity, as quantified by the number of scientific papers published by the end of the grant period, versus what was achieved by researchers that had received grants from FAPESP’s regular program. “Maybe some of the young researchers had an attitude  regarded as too independent by the institution, given that they had passed a very strict selection process carried out by FAPESP”, noted Pian.

An interesting fact relates to the fields  attracting the most research projects. The health sector, generally an area of particular interest in other programs, did not attract much demand among young researchers. On the other hand, there was an  unusually high demand for funding in areas such as biochemistry and genetics (related to biotechnology and genomics), as well as in botany and zoology (the basis for environmental and biodiversity studies). “These fields are very much in vogue; they are appealing and generally fascinate younger researchers”, stated Pian.