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Cultivating Affinities

Closer ties among the BRICS countries yield scientific results, study shows

In July 2014, the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) established a development bank, capitalized at $50 billion, to finance infrastructure projects of mutual interest. Just as it was in the economic sphere, the closer relationships among the five countries are producing results in the realm of science—and have helped leverage research collaboration. This finding appears in a study published in the December 2014 issue of the journal Scientometrics, which analyzed production of scientific articles and papers published at conferences that were written in co-authorship by researchers from the bloc’s countries between 1996 and 2012. “The purpose of the research was to investigate the strength of scientific collaborations among the BRICS. We realized that the creation of the bloc had played a role in that process,” says Ugo Finardi, a researcher at Italy’s National Research Council and author of the study, which analyzed articles published in more than 20,000 periodicals indexed in the Scopus database established by publisher Elsevier.

The study shows that in 2000, about 8% of the total number of papers by Brazilian authors published with researchers from all over the world were produced in collaboration with BRICS colleagues. By 2012, that percentage had risen to 14%. Although Brazil does not appear as the principal partner of the other countries in the group, it has cooperated in areas where it has distinguished itself, such as in the medical and health sciences. In recent years, for example, its affinity with South Africa in those fields of knowledge has grown; the extent to which this has occurred surprised Finardi. “The strong collaboration between Brazil and South Africa in medical sciences may possibly be the result of their common interest in developing new treatments for neglected diseases, such as malaria and Chagas disease, as well as for AIDS,” he observes.

Russia, however, is the BRICS country with which Brazilian researchers most frequently interact. In all, more than 3,777 articles were published in co-authorship between 1996 and 2012, in fields like mathematics, physics, chemistry, biological and agricultural sciences, and materials science. Edgar Dutra Zanotto, coordinator of the Vitreous Materials Laboratory (LaMaV) at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), believes the relationship between Brazil and Russia is oriented toward the basic sciences and specific areas in which the two countries share experience and interests. He mentions research with glass as an example. “Russia has had a dominant role in glass research for more than 30 years. It is essential that anyone studying the nucleation and growth of crystals in glass and its physical and chemical properties have contact with Russian researchers,” he says. About 25% of the 200 articles by Zanotto that have been catalogued in the Scopus database since 1977 were written with Russian co-authors, some of whom now live in the United States.

As happened with the South Africans, Brazil’s experience in medical sciences has also inspired Russians to visit Brazil. In October 2010, Russian neuroscientist Vassiliy Tsytsarev, currently at the School of Medicine of the University of Maryland, spent time at the laboratory run by Esper Cavalheiro at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). His visit was supported by FAPESP as part of its Visiting Researcher Grant Program. Born and educated in Russia, but having also studied in Japan, where he completed two post- doctoral programs, Tsytsarev has been living since 2005 in the United States, where he works with animal models in order to study epilepsy. He had been corresponding with Cavalheiro, with whose scientific production he was already familiar, for a long time. “Russians always leaned toward collaboration with countries in Eastern Europe and with the United States, but now a lot of them are aware of the opportunities for international collaboration with Brazil,” Tsytsarev says.

The preference for collaboration with researchers from the world’s leading countries in research is one of the points addressed in Finardi’s study. The Italian researcher observed an intense interaction by the BRICS with the United States and Germany, and found that the five countries collaborate with the two science powerhouses more often than they do with each other. In the case of Brazil, more than 20% of the papers written in co-authorship are the result of cooperation with Americans. Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor in the Political Science Department of the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP), says the world’s major research centers have adopted an attitude of superiority with respect to the BRICS. “Despite the increase in scientific production in emerging countries, the quality of research is much higher in the United States and Europe. It would be counterproductive for an emerging country to give priority to forging partnerships with centers that are also emerging,” she says.

China seems to understand this very well. It is the only country in the bloc whose percentage of articles published in co-authorship with other members of the BRICS remained essentially unchanged at 4.6% throughout the historical series analyzed in Finardi’s study. South Africa, on the other hand, exhibits the highest index of articles published with other BRICS, approximately 11%. “South Africa is the only member of the bloc whose research system is not well established partly because it spent many years isolated because of apartheid. For South Africa, connections with other BRICS represent a means of establishing a foothold in the worldwide research network. It is a gateway,” Balbachevsky suggests.

Although it prioritizes other countries, China retains its position as the principal collaborator with the BRICS (see graph). For example, the partnership that has yielded the highest number of scientific articles was between China and Russia—a total of 6,343 articles were published in co-authorship. “Of course, the higher a country’s scientific production, the greater the likelihood that it will collaborate with other nations,” Finardi explains. And in the case of China and Russia, he says, both have a huge community of researchers. “The strength of the relationship between the two countries is also explained by their common history as socialist regimes,” he adds. China ranks second among bloc countries with which Brazil has the most ties, especially in engineering, the social sciences, and the humanities—followed by India and, lastly, by South Africa.

According to Peter Schulz, a professor at the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), one contribution by Finardi’s work is that it shows Brazil’s relations with India and South Africa are stronger than had been previously thought. “Therefore, the data gathered in the study may also be useful in justifying the development of collaboration programs among those countries, such as the program for Trilateral Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation between India, Brazil, and South Africa under the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA),” he says. Inaugurated in 2003, the forum has launched projects in various fields of science, such as nanotechnology, where research efforts are presently suspended, awaiting new financing.

For a few years, partnerships in nanotechnology had been established, especially between Brazilians and South Africans. “That field has gained ground in South Africa and exhibits a level of scientific development that resembles ours,” says José Antonio Brum, a Unicamp professor and assistant coordinator of Special Programs at FAPESP. He was responsible for nanotechnology under the IBSA program in Brazil and in the past four years has closely followed South Africa’s progress in that field as a member of that country’s National Nanotechnology Council. “Researchers from South Africa have a lot of projects for developing nanometric structures for water filtration, a subject that is certainly of interest to Brazilians in times of drought,” Brum says.

Professor Sílvia Guterres, from the School of Pharmacy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), has been in touch with South African researchers in the context of the IBSA Forum, but could not pursue the partnership because the program has been suspended. “We were going to work together in developing new molecules for use in treating neglected diseases,” Guterres says. According to Brum, Brazil needs to remain alert to the potential for collaboration with emerging countries, since they share common research problems. “The issue is strategic. We need to identify the best of what each country has to offer and then start the conversations,” he says.

One example of closer ties among BRICS was the holding of an edition of the FAPESP Week international symposium in China in April 2014. An advance mission had visited China twice to evaluate topics and make contacts. “The interaction between Brazilian science and Chinese science is still incipient in many fields. And China is a very important place for anyone who is pursuing research,” says physicist Marcelo Knobel, a professor at Unicamp and deputy coordinator of the FAPESP Area Panel on Collaboration in Research. Prominent among the fields in which the two countries could collaborate more effectively are materials science, nanotechnology, renewable energy, and agricultural sciences. “Increasingly we are learning that south-south cooperation among developing countries is essential in order to diversify the science,” Knobel says.

In his laboratory at Unicamp, Knobel is in frequent contact with Russians, Chinese, and researchers from India. One of these is Surender Kumar Sharma, from Himachal Pradesh University, in India. He is presently a visiting researcher at the Department of Physics at Unicamp, where he is doing post-doctoral work in hybrid nanomaterials—nanoparticles that combine magnetic material with metal and have potential applications in manufacturing of medical equipment. Sharma was introduced to Knobel in 2007 by Ravi Kuma, his advisor for his doctoral work, who had already collaborated with the Brazilian. In 2008, Sharma came to Brazil, with support from FAPESP, and carried out a project on nanostructuring using ion beams. Since then, his collaboration with Knobel has intensified. “It would be good for the BRICS to establish new exchange programs. Combining forces to improve research quality ought to be a goal for all five countries,” Sharma says.