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Helena Nader: Brazilian science still does not reflect the Brazilian people

UNIFESP biomedical scientist and the first woman to preside over the Brazilian Academy of Sciences talks about the importance of affirmative action and highlights education as a priority

The UNIFESP biomedical scientist was known for her combative posture as chair of the SBPC between 2011 and 2017

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

For the first time since it was founded more than a century ago, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) will be led by a woman. Helena Bonciani Nader, a biomedical scientist and researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), was elected to head the academy for the next three years starting in May, succeeding physicist Luiz Davidovich, who held the position since 2016. Nader’s lab at UNIFESP is renowned for its research on heparin, a polysaccharide known for its anticoagulant properties, and in recent years she has became known for her combative posture as chair of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). She has been vice president of the ABC since 2019. In 2020, she joined the FAPESP Board of Trustees.

Based in Rio de Janeiro, the ABC was founded in 1916 by a group of scientists interested in conducting research and communicating scientific results—French astronomer Henrique Morize was the first president. Today, the academy has 568 full members from a wide range of fields who participate in debates and carry out studies on scientific topics and the country’s development. In this interview, Nader talks about her work as head of the academy.

What are your plans for the ABC? What areas are you hoping to advance?
Lots of people have big ideas, but no one can do anything alone. My predecessors achieved a lot. Eduardo Moacyr Krieger [1993–2007] and his team had a major impact in promoting the ABC internationally and creating the IAP [Inter Academy Partnership]. The academy started coordinating with several international organizations. Later, Jacob Palis [2007–2016] intensified this strategy. He even became president of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). Under Palis’s leadership, the ABC offered funding for reports on major topics of interest to science and the country’s development. This was important to ensuring the academy’s central role. He also emphasized partnerships, with the SBPC for example. The two institutions began to act in a complementary fashion. Luiz Davidovich [2016–2022], for whom I was vice president for the last three years, further increased the academy’s international reach and deepened discussions on Brazilian science and technology policies. I need to give credit for all of this, because otherwise someone might read this interview and say: “What a pretentious woman, she ignored everything that has been done in the past.” I work as part of a group.

And what does this newly elected group intend to do?
One of our challenges is to further strengthen the dialogue with Brazilian Congress. We need to very clearly show politicians and government officials in general the importance of science and education at all levels. It’s 2022. That means almost a quarter of the century has passed and we are coasting when it comes to education and science—actually, in many ways, we are moving backwards. The State has to contribute to education and science. When Brazilian politicians go abroad, regardless of party affiliations, they all come back saying: “Look what American science has done, look what Israeli science has done, look at South Korea.” But none of them see how they did it. It was no accident. It was a project. In South Korea, the business sector now invests the most in science, but this was backed by the state’s decision to invest in education. Education is the start. Education generates science, which generates technology, which generates innovation. Some politicians say that when Brazil needs technology or innovation, it buys it. I have been warning the government for years—not just this administration—that buying technology is not as simple as pushing a button. Even for such an approach, you need trained people.

Does Brazilian society value science?
Yes. Brazilians already believed in science and the pandemic very clearly showed society the value of science. But we need better dialogue with the public, to translate what Brazilian science is doing for society, so people can take possession of this knowledge and increase their demands. American politicians are no better than ours on this front—it is American society that demands it. Here, most people forget who they voted for. When we elect a federal, state, or local politician, we are saying: “I gave you power of attorney to speak on my behalf.” But they are not speaking on our behalf. Last year, when Congress cut funding to the CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], they did not speak on our behalf.

The mobilization you’re calling for has been one of the hallmarks of the SBPC, which you presided over for six years, between 2011 and 2017. Is there a risk of the ABC implementing redundant initiatives?
We and the SBPC are complementary. The ABC brings together some of Brazilian science’s biggest names from all fields, and the SBPC unites scientists and scientific societies from different fields. The ABC has always produced documents and books on scientific topics relevant to Brazil and has sought to influence national science policy. It can discuss these topics with authority thanks to the knowledge of its members and other collaborating scientists. There are 13 scientists from different fields and different regions of Brazil on the elected board, and this group will strive to ensure the academy can overcome the challenges of twenty-first-century science. But there is no point doing this if there is nobody willing to listen on the government’s side, so the pursuit of greater dialogue will continue as a key objective.

What kind of topics do you plan to address in studies carried out by the academy?
We haven’t decided yet, but one of the things I want to do, and I know this is going to have the support of the entire board, is an in-depth study of education. A lot of people say, “we need more scientists.” And I agree, but my concern with scientific education is not to create more scientists. It’s about citizenship. An individual who cannot think scientifically is also unable to listen to information and judge whether or not it is real. Our schools are still segregated and this is accentuating the differences. Brazil loses a lot of talent due to a lack of opportunities. The academy can contribute to this issue and many other topics, such as the environment, human rights, and energy.

How does the ABC fund its activities?
None of the board members are paid, but the ABC has a headquarters and needs to maintain a staff. The academy, like the SBPC, is funded by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, with a budget approved by Congress every year as part of Brazil’s Annual Budget Law. This funding is intended for the institution’s infrastructure. For other activities, we’ve been looking for institutional partners that meet our ethical and environmental criteria. The problem is that many people and companies that fit this profile are not interested in collaborating. Here in Brazil, unlike in the EU, the UK, and the USA, entrepreneurs do not see these partnerships as something important to them—with a few exceptions. But we will keep trying. We are identifying targets and making contacts.

The ABC has received funding from the government and public funding agencies to produce documents and reports. Does that kind of financial backing compromise your independence?
The ABC has positioned itself unequivocally, especially in the last three years, in relation to the influence of external people and governments. In March, a document written by the Initiative for Science and Technology in Parliament [ICTP] against the dictatorship and threats of a military coup were signed by the ABC and the SBPC. Maybe the academy would have avoided signing documents like this in past years. Government funding for our projects sometimes causes a debate, but that doesn’t intimidate us. The ABC has taken a clear stand in relation to pseudo-treatments against COVID-19, the efficiency of vaccines, environmental defense, and human rights. We have sought to strengthen dialogue with society. In 2021, we elected the Yanomami writer, shaman, and political leader Davi Kopenawa as a contributing member, and I am very proud to have participated in this decision.

An individual who cannot think scientifically is also unable to listen to information and judge whether or not it is real

Does the ABC reflect the diversity of Brazilian science?
Brazilian science—let’s not blame the academy—still does not reflect the Brazilian people. Our science reflects the white and the European much more than any others. Affirmative actions have been fundamental. It has to be celebrated when a woman reaches my position, but it should be commonplace—women make up more than 50% of the population. And it’s not just in Brazil. The US National Academy of Sciences of the United States, which is much older, only elected Marcia McNutt, its first female president, a few years ago. The UK’s academy has never been led by a woman.

What is the ABC’s stance in relation to affirmative action?
Merit will always be the ABC’s goal. But the fact that it is meritocratic does not mean that only its members have merit. Regarding women, the academy analyzed the situation and noticed that female representation was very low. Before me, a spectacular woman was vice president between 1995 and 1997 and could have been president: Johanna Döbereiner [1924–2000], who was a pioneer in soil biology. I can’t judge, but I can see that she had all the qualities needed to have been president. Why were there so few women in the academy in the past? Because fewer women were appointed as members. If fewer are appointed, despite being just as good scientists, they will be in the minority forever. So while continuing to value merit to the same degree, we began to actively search for female members. After the Ordinary General Assembly to choose new members in 2022, eight of the 13 elected members are women.

And what about black scientists in the ABC? They are still few and far between…
That’s true. I don’t know how many there are exactly. One was Oswaldo Alves [1946–2021], a chemist from UNICAMP [University of Campinas] who recently died. He was a great friend and is sorely missed. If you asked me to name some others, I couldn’t do it. “But what kind of president is this, who doesn’t know how many black scientists there are in the academy?” I’m being honest: I don’t know. That’s something we need to look into. We know that few blacks achieve the very top qualifications in Brazil. The country’s past is rooted in slavery, and when it was abolished, slaves were told: “Go. You’re free. Good luck.” It took a long time for Brazil to accept the idea of affirmative action. Affirmative policy is not just about quotas. Actively searching, like we did with women, is affirmative action. We are going to analyze the situation so that we can better reverse it. When I was dean of undergraduate studies at UNIFESP, we, together with UnB [University of Brasília], were the first federal universities to create an affirmative action policy, which aimed to offer 10% of new places to students from public schools, black students, and indigenous people. Now, with the 50% quota for black and indigenous public school students, we are seeing federal universities better reflect the diversity of Brazilian society.

I’d like you to talk a little about the routine at the ABC. Do academics meet face-to-face?
We have a small, highly skilled group of employees. They handle the academy’s daily routine in an exceptional way. We develop research proposals, the employees write them up, and then they are reviewed by the board. Their work must be appreciated. With academics, the story is different: researchers have to come to the institution. The pandemic ended up helping in this regard, because it increased the number of online seminars. But now there are so many people doing seminars at the same time, sometimes we don’t know which one to choose. During the pandemic we worked on other activities. We held two mega-events with Nobel Prize Outreach, one for all of Brazil and the other for all of Latin America and the Caribbean. As vice president, I was in charge of these events. The ABC plays a very important role in dialogues with other Latin American countries and the BRICS nations [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa]. Since 2019 I have been cochair of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Sciences (IANAS), which was formed in 2004 thanks to the vision and hard work of Professor Hernan Chaimovich, who was its first cochair. These are activities that we have to continue with more intensity.

You did an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP in 2013, when you were starting your second term as head of the SBPC, and discussed issues such as distributing oil royalties to science and the Science Without Borders program. Have we made progress in relation to the concerns of the time?
I’ll start with the positives. Back then, we were fighting for a legal framework for science, technology, and innovation, and we were successful. The Brazilian constitution was amended in 2015, then Law 13.243 passed in 2016, known as the science, technology, and innovation act, and its complementary regulations in 2018. Another positive point from that period was that we were able to bring together the different players—the scientific community working together with businessmen, legislators, and funding agencies. The legislation exists, but how is it actually enforced? This is still a major challenge and the ABC will need to play a leading role. The government wants to pass legislation defining a national science, technology, and innovation system under pressure from the Federal Public Audit Office. This needs to be fully agreed upon by everyone involved. We are facing great difficulties. Academics, universities, research institutes, funders—including research-funding agencies, institutional foundations, and businesses—and the government all have to work together.

The fact that the Brazilian Academy of Sciences is meritocratic does not mean that only its members have merit

And the negatives?
I don’t even need to talk about science funding. What has happened is tragic. We managed to pass the law to remove constraints on the FNDCT [National Scientific and Technological Development Fund], but the FNDCT has now become a lifeline. It was supposed to be a supplement to the existing budget, but it has become essential. The truth is that nothing will happen based on the FNDCT alone. Federal government funding for science, technology, and innovation has declined significantly over the last few years.

But the science budget has improved compared to last year, hasn’t it? What is the outlook for this year?
The plan is for a twelfth of the FNDCT funds to be released each month. Let’s see. The FNDCT board is responsible for allocating funds and has established that 50% will be used for repayable loans, which we know will not be used because companies do not want to pay interest. We proposed 15% for loans, which is the percentage that has actually been used in the past. We lost this vote, but we will keep fighting.

At the beginning of the interview, you spoke about how difficult it can be to get people to listen. Who were you referring to?
When we talk to people from the Ministry of Finance, they say they want to back science. But their actions demonstrate the opposite, and we see the same thing with the president’s office. I just can’t believe they really want to support science. At the end of last year, Congress approved a funding cut for the CNPq. The approved research projects are now being paid for with funds from this year’s FNDCT. It’s not for me to judge whether or not these funding cuts were appropriate for the initiatives affected. But I know that science suffered greatly, because we had an agreement and the legislators broke that agreement. This is something I can’t accept. I voted for my representative and senator so that they could do what is in the best interest of the nation, not just their own interest. I don’t know whether the parliamentary amendments that have received funds are valid or not. I’m not judging. But the allocation of funds we were going to receive was open, everyone knew where it was going. I’m argumentative, I just hope I don’t harm the academy. I am the daughter and granddaughter of Syrian-Lebanese and Italian immigrants. This country welcomed my family with open arms. Me and my sister are the first generation with access to university and this country has offered us everything. I will never give up on Brazil, and I hope Brazil will never give up on me.