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International projection, national expansion

New method for production of knowledge has established itself in Brazil

In the week between the 9th and 15th of July 2000, Nature magazine, one of the most well-regarded scientific publications in the world, published (on the cover and all), a story  on the discoveries of a group of scientists from São Paulo that did the complete sequencing of the genome of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa. It was a great event for the scientific community of the State of São Paulo, and consequently for the country too.

Much has already been written on this achievement, which is very understandable. In a country that has become used to observing the success of science and technology (S & T) in the developed countries, to also see that it is possible to be successful with national S & T is a cause for pride and lots of celebrations.  .

What we would like to highlight is not the achievement in itself, but rather what we believe to have been its causes and its impacts. In the first place, by stressing the “general conditions of production” of this achievement, which we will here be calling “a new production method of new knowledge”. In this regard, the factor that we consider as most notable was the existence of a human capital stock, highly qualified in the area of biological sciences, in the territory of the State of São Paulo.

From the introduction of a managerial innovation proposed by FAPESP, as it was the structure of working in a network of laboratories (the Onsa network), this stock of human capital was encouraged to make feasible – of a scale and scope without precedent in the history of Brazilian research – a massive flux of new information on the material that was being researched. Thanks to bioinformatics, this flux provided for the accumulation of a new kind of capital (a database), which made it possible to arrive at the genome, after it had been transformed into new knowledge (the genetic map of the organism studied).  And the article published internationally by Nature is just the first of the products generated by this new method of producing knowledge.

The conclusion of the first genome of a plant pathogen in the world by scientists from São Paulo not only puts Brazil on the frontier of international genomics (the other genomes that are being done with FAPESP funding will guarantee this position), but it also brings with it the realization that a new paradigm for the production of knowledge has been established in the country.

And it was precisely this that attracted the attention of the scientific community in Pernambuco. When Facepe, the Pernambuco Science and Technology Support Foundation, concluded a pioneering agreement with FAPESP, to take part in the Onsa network for the Sugar Cane Genome project, there as much interest in mastering the technology of automatic genetic sequencing, and as in mastering this new method of production of new knowledge (essentially, for the fact that Genomics is a science that is new, interdisciplinary, and the harbinger of the future). Other states of the federation have realized this new facet of the reality of national biological research, and are expanding this network, as it is the case of Alagoas and Rio de Janeiro.

The great lesson that can be learnt from an achievement like this is that the country is discovering itself. It is realizing that it has the chances, the potential, the human resources, the technology, and much wealth to be explored. With proper balance, with the right focus, with science of an international excellence and technology of national importance, Brazil can still go further.

José Carlos Cavalcanti is a professor with UFPE’s Economics Department and the president of Facepe