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Esper Cavalheiro: From the theoretical to the practical

The new president of the CNPq, the neurologist Dr. Esper Cavalheiro, spoke about scholarships, the Tundisi Report and the role of development agencies.

MIGUEL BOYAYANThe neurologist from São Paulo Esper Abrão Cavalheiro is the new President of the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). He is substituting Evando Mirra who was picked as the coordinator of the newly formed Administration Center and Strategic Studies (CGEE), of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). Two years ago, Cavalheiro left the Board of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) to take over the Secretary of Policies and Programs of the MCT. He participated in the reformulation process of the Ministry and states, during the interview granted to our editor Claudia Izique, that the change in command of the agency is a “substitution of continuity”.

What are your plans now that you are in command of the CNPq? Are there changes coming?
– We are not at a moment for promoting major changes. From the moment that I was invited by Minster Ronaldo Sardenberg, two years ago, to occupy the Secretary of Policies and Programs of the MCT, I began to be part of a work team that would directly involve the two government development agencies: the CNPq and the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep). The plans were drawn up at that moment and now is the time to put them into practice. Since that time, the Minister’s intention has been to increase the resources available for research into science and technology. This goal is being attained with the implementation of the sectorial funds.

The plan also envisioned the implantation of long term policies, which could not be knocked off course by circumstantial problems and which would permit planning and an advance for this sector in the country. This objective is about to be reached: the MCT sponsored the National Science and Technology Conference in September and is in the process of producing the White Book (Livro Branco) with the main goals for development. Therefore, we are living in a phase in which the policy is very clear and the role of the agencies well defined. Recently, we began to draw on the support of the CGEE for the definition of strategic policies. In this way, the rules of the game are already defined. I am taking over the position as a substitution of continuity.

What are the new roles for the development agencies to which you referred?
– The Finep will remain clearly steering its work towards company relations, with the objective of promoting an approximation between the company and the university and to stimulate entrepreneurial research, in particular. As you well know, in Brazil investment in innovation is very small, except for some notable exceptions. We have considerable research personnel potential in this area of technology, but, unfortunately, they are distant from the entrepreneurial world. In the case of the CNPq, our mission is to finance and to support the activities developed in the universities and in the research institutes, forming, at the same time, human resources and stimulating post graduation in the country.

During your inauguration ceremony, Minister Sardenberg spoke of the CNPq ahving being a Center of Strategic Planning in the same mold as the Finep. What would be its duties?
– We are studying the constitution of this Center of Strategic Planning in the CNPq. The first rough draft of its structure is already completed. This center will be an interface for the CNPq with the CGEE, with the Finep and with the Ministry itself. The CNPq has an enormous quantity of instruments at its disposal from undergraduate scientific scholarships to special programs such as the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR), under construction in the region of Cerro Pachón in Chile. The CGEE will define what the priorities are. We need to know if the CNPq has the necessary tools to put into practice what the CGEE deems necessary. It is worth recalling that the CNPq, the Finep and the CGEE have independent activities. Fine tuning is needed so that they don’t shoot off in opposite directions, making use of the same money.

In this rearrangement, can we expect alterations in the relationships with the State Research Support Foundations and with the State Secretaries of Science and Technology?
– No, there will be no change whatsoever. There is no doubt that each region of this country has different necessities. But, there has to be a clear interaction between the regional, state and municipal actions, with what the MCT defines as priority. We know that certain actions that occur in regions of the country are dominated by political desires that don’t always have a relation with the problems of the local scientific community. We intend, through discussions with the leaders, to attempt to link the programs of the MCT, CNPq and Finep to these anxieties that are legitimate, brought up for a wider discussion and less subject to the momentary political situation.

Last year the CNPq reduced to 4,075 the number of scholarships distributed in the State of São Paulo. Is there the prospect of an increase in the number of scholarships for São Paulo?
– This is an excellent point for discussion. São Paulo has a quantity of research groups much greater than the national average. The competency installed is very high, and this is nothing new. São Paulo knows, through FAPESP, how to create mechanisms of financial stability for research groups who are envied even outside of the country. We, here in São Paulo, never worry with the possibility that the money will not turn up. The demand for more scholarship resources is justified. However, one needs to take into consideration that, on the national panorama, the situation is different. São Paulo has a performance much superior in relation to the rest of the country. In Brazil there are regions where science began yesterday. São Paulo is helping all of the other States by receiving post graduate students, and this training allows other areas to begin to produce science. São Paulo has trained masters and doctors for them, and now they are active.

The sectorial funds have increased significantly the MCT’s budget. Will this growth also be reflected in the budget of the CNPq, by raising the number of scholarships or the values paid to those who have won them?
– The MCT’s annual budget is likely to increase at least by 20%. However, the money for human resources is voted separately within the Overall Annual Plan. The resources destined to scholarships represents close to 60%. Some programs have special allotments such as, for example, that of biotechnology. In relation to the scholarships, their values are proportional to the level of the salaries of the Federal university professors. There is the prospect that these values will be readjusted. It is not possible to imagine that these values will be maintained at the same level.

The Tundisi Report worries the scientific community. The withdrawal of post graduation from the institutes possible? How did you yourself see the criticisms of the report?
– I got to know about the report as a member of the MCT. The debate surrounding its proposals made one problem absolutely clear: everyone loves change, but nobody wants to change. The report is the result of a wide ranging discussion with each one of the research institutes of the country. However, people insist on generalizing the proposals contained in the report. The major problem is how they evaluate their turf. Post graduation cannot follow the same pathway as that of specialization, copying its structure. The formation of the researcher is not that of the specialist.

For example, in health an immense amount of work was carried out to put together things that should never have been dismembered. With fragmented courses by area of specialization, post graduation ended up turning itself into a feud. Nobody wanted to divide up power. When one speaks of an association, it is implicit that something will have to go. If the coordination remains in the university and not in an institute, the money will be administered by the university. The solution is good conversation between the two parties involved. There are those who say that the report is no good for intellectual reasons. I really have to be convinced of this.

The Brazilian post graduation system has prided itself in increasing the number of doctors who have graduated over the last few years. At the same time, there is a number of young doctors, with good qualifications, who have not managed to find employment either in universities or in institutes. How can we open up this market?
– We are proud of the growth of the number of doctors in the country. In the 70’s and 80’s, the number of private universities began to grow, which could have represented an opening of the market for doctors and masters, graduates of the public universities. However, the Law of Directives and Bases in Education, allowed the private universities to put specialists in place, and not doctors and masters, in the command of post graduation. This shrunk the market. Besides this difficulty, the recently graduated doctors are competing in the market of the private universities with doctors who have had a longer graduation time. On the other hand, the public universities can not grow more due to budgetary restrictions.

Unfortunately, the private universities have frustrated our expectations and not turned themselves into research centers. Clearly, there are honorable exceptions. And finally, one more problem: companies are not working hard to receive young researchers. Our expectation is that the public universities return to hiring. There is an aging of the university professors. The average age is increasing each year which is not a good sign for SeT. As well, we hope that the private universities, instead of setting up a team of personnel for putting on show, decide to invest in people. Even more, we are betting on entrepreneurial development and in innovation to widen the employment market for our doctors.

As a researcher, how do you personally feel having left the research laboratory to take over the Presidency of the CNPq?
– I am very happy to be able to look at the country as a whole. We, researchers of São Paulo, are protected by a development agency such as FAPESP. However, it is a privilege to direct the CNPq and to see the large number of challenges that are placed before us by SeT in the country. I am only sorry, as a researcher, that I am not at the side of the student when he makes an observation for the first time, when he discovers understanding. Now they communicate their success via e-mail. This is the overcoming joy of the professor. On the other hand, in Brasilia, we are living a very dynamic moment. Never before has there been such talk about science and technology. When I was invited, the great motivation was to place SeT on the national agenda. And that’s exactly what has happened. I discovered that there were important things outside of the medical area. It is good to be able to study things out with ones area. Sometimes I feel the desire to begin all over again.