FAPESP is amplifying the number of advisors who evaluate and follow, until conclusion, the research projects sent to them. During the last few years, as well as having registered an extraordinary growth in the demand of petitions within the regular lines of development, the Foundation implanted a series of new special programs whose projects depend on the analysis of two advisors in order to be approved or denied. In 1999, for example, 12,475 financial help requests were forwarded, between scholarships, traditional assistance in its various modalities, and assistance to research projects of various special programs of the institution, overloading the work of the 9,244 advisors already associated with the Foundation. For this reason, the Scientific director of FAPESP, José Fernando Perez, understands that it is necessary to expand the number of advisors. Participation is open to all researchers who have documented experience in research. “The researcher can propose his own name or that of a colleague for our advisors team”, explains Perez. The application can be done via Internet.
Analysis by pairs
The system adopted by FAPESP to evaluate projects is peer review or rather, one scientist analyses the research solicitation of another scientist in the same area of understanding. This criteria is adopted in the most important development agencies throughout the world.The researchers who carry out this analysis will become ad hoc advisors of FAPESP, or that is, they will not maintain with FAPESP any formal link and will function as its advisors solely for the final specification of the evaluated projects. The opinions about the merit of these projects are sent to the area coordinators of the Scientific Board of the Foundation (one for each broad area of knowledge) which, considering the various aspects dealt with, consolidate them into recommendations of approval or denial for the finance request.
“All the decisions are, however, simultaneously linked to the opinions of the advisors and the norms of FAPESP”, states Perez. The advisors will also accompany the project during all the research time and until the final report. To provide ad hoc assessment to FAPESP is a non remunerated activity. “The non payment is an international practice, works in general as a counterpoise to the financing which the researcher himself has already received and may receive in the future for his own researches”, explains Perez. This may be useful to the majority of advisors , which are from the state of São Paulo, but cannot be extended to the specialists of other states and abroad who also do the same kind of counseling, because legally the finances of the Foundation can only be conceded to researchers based in São Paulo. The assessment of the remainder is an act of habitual cooperation within the scientific community.
“The importance in the work of the advisors is that they evaluate the scientific importance of the project and the methodology employed, the competency of the equipment and the budget presented. Also to verify the costs to benefits ratio and the risk of the research being successful or not. Summing up, it is necessary to think about the benefits, the costs, the relevance and the viability of the study”, explains Perez.
Secrecy and confidence
The process of evaluation and accompaniment of the projects has another important question: secrecy. The advisors commits himself to not disclose the contents of the project which must be treated as confidential. He cannot reveal his identity neither to the interested party nor to a third party. All, because the success of the system depends on the confidence which is deposited in the advisors and in the secrecy which FAPESP also promises to exercise. In order to assure this, the Foundation has taken a few provisions, such as to avoid the indication of an advisor from the same institution from the requesting party.
Another concern is to avoid the choice of an advisor who has any special connection with the petitioner which would make it difficult or even impede an independent appraisal, that is, which interjects a potential conflict of interests. Because of this FAPESP sends to each advisor, along with the project to be analyzed, a letter with the criteria to be observed even before the evaluation begins. If he concludes that his position in relation to the petitioner effectively brings to light some conflict of interest, then he must return the project.
The indication of a specific assessor for each petitioner is made by the coordinator of each area of scientific understanding. For example, in the biological sciences there are sub-areas of botany, genetics, pharmacology and another ten fields of action. Along with the area coordinators, the assistant coordinators work bringing internal assessment to the scientific area of FAPESP.
For professor Francisco Bezerra Coutinho, Assistant Coordinator
in the area of Exact Sciences at FAPESP, most of the time it is very difficult for the coordinator to choose an advisor. “Sometimes a good scientist is a limited advisor assessor who produces a laconic appraisal”, he explains. “There are good scientists who are not good advisors”, agrees Rogério Meneghini, Assistant Coordinator in the area of Biological Science.
For him, the culture of advisors is still only slightly developed in Brazil. “Advisors are very different in the United States and Europe. There they are broader and more profound and spend more time on analysis”, explains Meneghini. “Here the answers are short, but, on average, the advisors are very good.” He credits this disharmony to the greater competitively which exists in the exterior, demanding evaluations which are more rigorous.
Some petitioners take up the right guaranteed to them by FAPESP of appealing against a negative decision, through a request of reconsideration based on the discussion of the objections raised by the ad hoc advisor. In these cases FAPESP sends back the project to the same advisor, or may send it to a second one “and even to a third, for a final arbitration, when the first two assessments are different and opposite”, says Paula Monteiro, Assistant Coordinator in the area of Human Science.
The area that need a larger number of advisors are those of engineering and health care, segments with the highest number of requests. In all, there are petitioners who attempt to find out who the advisor of their project is. “They try to guess, but normally are wrong” , says Coutinho. For this reason it is important to have a greater diversity of advisors helping to guarantee the secrecy and the impartiality which surrounds the approval of projects.
Impartiality and credibility
To preserve the credibility of its procedure of evaluation and to avoid constraints, FAPESP sends to each ad hoc advisors a list of criteria to be observed before the analysis of the project. The list contains the following items which, if answered affirmatively, represent a potential conflict of interest, giving the advisor total freedom to turn down the analysis:
• present or previous participation in the project
• regular collaboration in research or publication activities with one of the petitioning researchers during the last few years;
• a relationship advisor – advisee with the petitioner;
• a commercial interest of the advisor in the proposed research;
• a family relationship of the advisor with one of the proponents; or
• any previous relationship with the petitioner which could be perceived as obstructive towards an independent assessment.