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José Israel Vargas

José Israel Vargas: from crisis to opportunity

An advocate of nuclear energy and critic of corporatism, a former minister remembers his career as scientist and policy maker

GLÁUCIA RODRIGUESJosé Israel Vargas, 83, who was born in Minas Gerais State, is not just a privileged witness of the consolidation of Brazilian science in the twentieth century; he became one of the most influential voices in scientific and technological policy in the country, from the positions he occupied, as Minister of Science and Technology, from 1992 to 1998 (he held the position longer than anyone else ever has). A chemistry graduate from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in 1952, he soon became involved with physics, a field in which he gained solid experience at ITA (the Aeronautical Institute of Technology) and the University of São Paulo (USP). A PhD in nuclear science from the Faculty of Physics & Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, he was one of the formulators of Brazil’s nuclear energy policy at the beginning of the 1960s, an activity that was interrupted by the military coup of 1964, which led to him leaving the country and living in temporary exile for six and a half years as a researcher at the Centre for Nuclear Studies at the Atomic Energy Commission in Grenoble, France. Vargas returned to his career as a formulator of policies under Aureliano Chaves, who was the Governor of Minas Gerais at the time. He later became the Secretary of Industrial Technology in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in the Figueiredo administration. Itamar Franco’s presidency saw him moving to the Ministry of Science and Technology, where he continued in Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term in office. “As I’m jinxed I was always summoned at times of crisis,” says Vargas, who three years ago compiled some of his writings from the last thirty years into a book Science at a time of crisis. A defender of nuclear energy and critic of corporatism in Brazilian science, Vargas talks of his career in the following interview.

You have a degree in chemistry, but you embarked on a career in physics. Why this transition?
My friends joke that for physicists I’m a chemist and for chemists I’m a physicist. They mean I’m equally ignorant in both areas, don’t they? (laughter). The area that attracted almost all of my generation was nuclear physics and nuclear energy, the biggest technical and scientific conquest during and right after the Second World War. Brazil had had the good fortune to have a generation (that of the 1940s at USP) that gave us a series of great scientists, who had come out of the brilliant Italian school, created by Enrico Fermi. At USP, Gleb Wataghin and Giuseppe Occhialini taught Marcelo Damy, Abraão de Moraes, Mário Schönberg, Paulus Aulus Pompeia, César Lattes and Oscar Sala. My contact with this generation began when I went to study chemistry at the Federal University of Minas Gerais [UFMG] in 1948. In the second year I moved to USP, in Alameda Glete, where I stayed for almost two years. Like every young person at the time I was left-wing and involved in student protests and with the “The oil is ours” campaign, led mainly by the Communist youth movement. I made friends with and got to know people who became important scientists.

For example…
Ely Silva, Luís Hildebrando Pereira da Silva, Ernesto and Amélia Hamburger, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, José Goldemberg, Victor Nussenzweig, with whom, as a matter of fact, I was imprisoned during the oil campaign. I went back to Minas leaning towards physics. I became a high school physics teacher, although I continued studying chemistry, and I was a physics teacher on a university entrance exam course at the School of Philosophy at UFMG.

What was your stay at ITA like?
At the time, ITA was running an improvement course for high school physics teachers, which was an initiative of the CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development]. It was organized by Paulus Aulus Pompeia, who was one of the most important figures from Occhialini and Wataghin’s group. Pompeia was one of those who participated in the remarkable discovery of physics at the time: the so-called penetrating showers, one of the first demonstrations that the atomic nucleus is much more complex than was imagined. There were some twenty odd students from all over Brazil on this course. The prospects offered by nuclear energy to the world’s economy and to science were tremendous. It was natural that young people with some scientific inclination would move into this area. The course was interesting because Pompeia mobilized the cream of Brazilian physics to lecture and give conferences. There were also two great American physicists in Brazil at that time, Richard Feynman and David Bohm, the latter was fleeing from McCarthyism. Abraão de Moraes, who was an important Brazilian physics and astronomy theoretician, suggested that Pompeia hire me to work at ITA. I had recently graduated in chemistry but I went to the physics department.

What was the environment at ITA like?
I was at ITA from 1952 until 1954. It was an extremely interesting period because ITA had recruited the very best people in Brazil: young scientists and engineers in various areas, above all in mechanical engineering, materials, aeronautics and, of course, mathematics. It had hired a large number of scientists, particularly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There were some Germans from Von Braun’s group, as well as Belgians, French, Czechs and Swiss who began working on a project for the first Brazilian airplane, the seed of which would one day become Embraer. ITA was a special place, because it offered accommodation, food, a small salary and minimum working hours, which allowed people to attend the various courses at ITA, among which those given by Walther Baltensperger, who came from the Zurich Polytechnic and became a close friend. What’s more I used to go to São Paulo once a week to attend David Bohm’s seminar at USP and I frequently stayed with Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Mário Schönberg lived in the same building, which was reason enough for long conversations late into the night. This guided me increasingly towards physics. I left ITA because my father was sick and I went back to Belo Horizonte. That’s when a public entry exam opportunity for the chair in physics at the municipal college appeared. A little later in Belo Horizonte the Institute of Radioactive Research [IPR] was created and I was invited by Professor Francisco Magalhães Gomes, its organizer, to work precisely where I wanted to, the nuclear area.

The next step was a PhD at the University of Cambridge.
Exactly. At the time the first Latin American course in nuclear chemistry had been organized in Chile, at the University of Concepción, sponsored by the University of Cambridge and by Unesco. I received a grant from the CNPq for this course; just two of us were Brazilian. There I met Alfred Maddock, who suggested I should do a PhD at Cambridge and he would become my tutor. I started in 1956. Cambridge University had been the main development center for nuclear science. There were some five or six Nobel prize winners there in my time. The researchers came from the English nuclear armament program and many had taken part in the Manhattan Project. Various scientists were lecturing there at the time, like James Chadwick, who had discovered the neutron, and Otto Frisch, the author of the first model of nuclear fission.

GLAUCIA-RODRIGUES-3GLÁUCIA RODRIGUESWhat did you do when you came back to Brazil?
I went back to my old jobs at the Institute of Radioactive Research and at the School of Philosophy, where I was the acting chair of physics, chemistry and higher chemistry; I later passed a public exam and took over this chair. I made a lot of effort to get hold of the material conditions for doing scientific work, which was urgent. I subsequently established a strong relationship with Marcelo Damy and took part in numerous working groups that were created at the CNEN [National Nuclear Energy Commission], which he presided over. I was named a member of CNEN’s board and in this function I became his substitute on the Board of Governors at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where I was on various committees, two of which are worth mentioning. There was one that established the rules and safeguards for controlling nuclear activities by means of inspection and the other that was responsible for formulating the international standards for nuclear data, which until then had been very divergent.

Why were you relieved of your duties with the CNEN after the coup of 1964?
Naturally, they remembered that I had been a student agitator and the revolution had a long memory. Like all revolutions… I was subject to some three police enquiries; my laboratory was invaded by an army detachment. I was relieved of my duties “at the request” of CNEN’s board, but I decided not to leave Brazil until things had been clarified, in order to avoid being tried in my absence. In 1964 I received invitations to go to the United States, Argentina, the Netherlands and France. I chose France, and Grenoble in particular, but I maintained close relations with the National Institute of Nuclear Techniques, which functioned in Saclay, close to Paris. I went to Grenoble because one of my friends at the International Atomic Energy Agency [AIEA], Pierre Balligand, who was its director of power reactors, became director of the Center for Nuclear Studies in Grenoble, along with Louis Néel, a Nobel prize winner in Physics.

What relationship did you maintain with Brazil?
In 1969 or 1970, I was asked by the CNEN to come to Brazil to suggest policies, presumably new ones. The chairman of the committee was General Uriel Alvim and he wanted to discuss resuming or not   the famous thorium project that had been started at the IPR, in Belo Horizonte. This happened at a time when there was no clearly defined Brazilian nuclear policy. Within this context, a group of young engineers, physicists and chemists from Belo Horizonte formulated the so-called thorium project, which aimed at building one of various options of a reactor, particularly the so-called auto-generating or regenerating reactor, which would use a mixture of enriched uranium and thorium. The project lost support and I became the black sheep of the program. I never managed to prove the fact, but I’m certain, because of the indiscretion of a well-informed friend, that our Nuclear Energy Committee, by “secret decree”, which was apparently a common occurrence in the regime of 64, was forbidden to have any relationship with me…

To what do you attribute this?
My group, that of the Damy administration, always advocated an independent program, using natural uranium, but the military government signed an agreement with the United States and acquired a ready-made , turnkey reactor, fed with enriched uranium, to which the contribution of Brazilian technology would be practically nil, which we didn’t accept. We had our independent position on the Board of Governors of the AIEA. Remember that the certainty of a third world war was current doctrine in the Brazilian administration. Subsequently, in the Geisel government, there was the agreement with Germany, in which I played an indirect part. For example, the João Pinheiro Foundation, in Belo Horizonte, of which I was chairman during the Aureliano Chaves government, formulated the Pronuclear Program to be administered by the CNPq, aimed at training the personnel necessary to implement the nuclear agreement with Germany. Oscar Sala, Goldemberg and I, wary about the agreement, were invited to visit the German nuclear facilities. I thought then, and I still think now, that the nuclear program was an instrument for modernizing the country. I reckoned that the agreement had its positive side. For a long time the program was nothing more than an American reactor in Angra 1. This is a reactor with which we would learn nothing about technology, except, to be fair, the technology of safety, management and operations. The first reactor of those included in the nuclear agreement with Germany was Angra 2, which I finally supported.

Tell us about your return to Brazil.
The time arrived when I had to decide. I had four daughters, the oldest 12 years old. Remaining in France would have meant staying there permanently because it’s probable they would have got married there. I came back in 1972. It was an important moment in Brazilian science. In 1972 Finep [Studies and Projects Funding Agency] was headed up by José Pelúcio Ferreira, a central figure in the promotion of an extremely active and smart scientific policy here, which had ample financial resources coming from the BNDES and then from Finep itself. I didn’t know Pelúcio, but he invited me to talk to him. He wanted me to be a type of consultant. I told him of my resistance to having any relationship with the military government and that I was not interested in his invitation. As I was leaving I asked who had suggested my name. “Celso Furtado”, he said. I had become friendly with Celso at Cambridge. So I said that this changed the whole picture; if the suggestion came from Celso Furtado it’s because you deserved consideration. “So, what are we going to do?” he asked me. My proposal was as follows: to work on strategic materials, like nickel, zinc and niobium. Niobium is important because we have 90% of the world’s reserves and we don’t have nickel; our non-ferrous metals are all very altered by tropical storms, which require autonomous technology. The major reform in the Brazilian science and technology system was brought about by Pelúcio and Reis Velloso, in the Geisel government. To my surprise I was named a member of the plenary body of the new National Research Council, a Presidential body that coordinated the country’s research and development activities. At the same time they would not issue me with a passport so I could leave the country…

The military government also had a modernizing characteristic, as can be seen in the way it got close to scientists…
There was this doubtful situation. Certain groups and institutions opposed me, because, with a view to their own careers, they perhaps saw me as a competitor, but I had been appointed by Geisel. At the same time, Aureliano Chaves had been appointed Governor of Minas Gerais State and he knew me. He invited me to organize the Department of Science and Technology in the state government. I told him I couldn’t accept because I didn’t know the situation in which I should have to operate sufficiently well; I had been away for almost seven years. He said to me: “But do you want time to reflect, to think about it, to gather information?” I accepted this suggestion and was appointed chairman of the João Pinheiro Foundation. This is the time when Embrapa was created.

What were the discussions like that led to the creation of Embrapa?
I was against the project as it had been drawn up, until the program for preparing human resources was presented. The project by Alysson Paulinelli, the Minister of Agriculture, consisted in sending 800 young Brazilians to do PhDs at the best foreign universities, particularly in Wisconsin, Purdue, Cornell and other centers with an international reputation. That’s when I said I was in favor of the project, I knew that of these 800, 10% would have the competence necessary to absorb the progress that had been made in molecular genetics, thereby reorienting the company’s programs in this strategic sector. I remember this problem because there’s no secret in the choice of the path to progress. Examples of this success are the sequence of measures that led to Embraer and Embrapa: recruitment and highly competent training, management flexibility and independence from official bureaucracy. We’ve somewhat forgotten this today. Science is the work of individuals. Those who produce good science are good scientists and those who produce great science are great scientists. What is the role of government, politics or administration? It’s to create the conditions so that quality people can produce quality science. The second demand is as follows: unlike technology, which can be local and linked to one’s own natural conditions and original natural resources, science is universal. There’s no such thing as Brazilian science; there’s just science.

You were opposed to the creation of the MCT [Ministry of Science and Technology]. Why?
I was always against it, because the ministry competes with other cabinet positions that are recognizably stronger in the view of politicians, who almost always take a short-term view. So the Ministry of Science and Technology is always treated as being second or third category. In the Reis Velloso shuffle, Pelúcio put science in front of the President of the Republic, thereby guaranteeing priority and a budget. That’s what matters. Why was the ministry created? For political reasons. Dr. Ulysses Guimarães was asking for Renato Archer to be appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Tancredo had a commitment to Olavo Setúbal. That’s when the Ministry of Science and Technology was created for Archer, who was a good minister as a matter of fact. That shows the vulnerable and unimportant side of science and technology for Brazilian society. They still don’t form part of our system of values.

How were you invited to the ministry?
Collor was impeached and Itamar invited me. I told him that I’d been a little disillusioned with my work as secretary of Industrial Technology in the Figueiredo government. Itamar said to me, “Oh, but you need to help me carry the burden. I’m trying to form a government of national unity.” As I’m jinxed I arrived in a crisis, but I was the Minister of Science and Technology and lasted longer than anyone until today. Itamar gave me a lot of support. What I managed to do initially resulted largely from privatization of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional [National Steel Company]. The resources allowed us to continue with a large part of the work that had been put on hold for lack of funds…

For example?
I didn’t go there to invent the wheel and I worked from the principle that my predecessors were neither imbeciles nor malevolent, but people who at the time represented the opportunity, or otherwise, of carrying out certain projects and initiating so many others. So, I occupied my time finishing work that had been started. Many of the initiatives, both from the military regime as well as subsequently, came to absolutely nothing because of a disastrous decision under the Constitution of 1988: the single legal regime, which makes the salaries of professors at UFRJ, UFMG and Unifesp the same. It also establishes the same duties and remuneration for the teachers from these institutions and for those from any of these universities that the Lula government created right, left and center. There was a device that practically impeded the hiring of foreign scientists. It took four years of struggle to eliminate this prohibition from the Constitution. It took a long time and by then the university “cliques” and the single legal regime did not allow the country to be “refreshed” by people involved in research in border areas.

How do you assess the changes in legislation on innovation?
There are differences of opinion about whether it was Louis XV or Madame Pompadour who was the author of the famous phrase après moi, le déluge (“after me the flood”). In Brazil it’s the opposite; it’s “before me the flood.” All that was done before has to be abandoned. We had two extremely important  laws to incentivate  the development of science and technology, with the participation of industry – the 8,248, the IT Law, and the 8,661, which allowed companies to deduct up to 8% from their income tax due if they invested this percentage in science and technology. Law 8,248 was very generous, because it applied to revenue in the IT sector. Both were altered. One of the reasons for the lack of success in the relationship of industry with universities and with the research promotion bodies is that important developments from the economic point of view, which generate income, are protected by secrecy. The company that wants to develop a new device cannot bear to submit its idea to the decision-making bureaucracy formed by scientists at Finep and the CNPq. Neither will it agree to submit it to its peers, because they are probable competitors. The solution consists in giving the incentive afterwards. A company declares that it1s going to invest X in science and technology; it invests it, enters into an agreement with the university and does what it wants with the secrecy clause. When the project is finished, the government, when it1s shown what has been done, gives the incentive or otherwise. It seems trivial, doesn1t it? It1s essential. As it contradicts the claims of the scientific community, which wants to have the power of decision, an incompatibility is engendered between the production sector and academia. One of the changes that occurred with this law was to attribute a greater role to the decision-making bodies. That was a mistake.

GLÁUCIA RODRIGUESWhat is the future of the Brazilian energy matrix going to be?
First, hydroelectric power. Everybody1s talking about mega-plants, but when you look at the water potential of Brazil, generally speaking all the potential that has less than 20 megawatts is ignored. Mini-plants have an immense potential. I think we need nuclear energy to replace the cutting edge generation, today produced by gas, coal and fossil fuel oil, which produce greenhouses gases.

Nuclear energy lost a bit of ground in the 1980s because of safety issues, which might be repeated now after the radioactive leaks caused by the earthquake in Japan. Is there a mature technology to substitute nuclear power or to truly complement what Brazil needs?
No. There1s very little chance of the country resuming activities in the area because the specialist people there are now old, because there were no stimuli for forming new specialists. Over 30 years ago during the Geisel government a Pronuclear program was created. When it was in force, more than 600 people were sent abroad – engineers, geologists, chemists and physicists ‘ to undertake specialization studies, mainly in Germany. These people grew old and retired. The only initiative that survived is the remains of the so-called “parallel program,” today being conducted by Admiral Otto Pinheiro, which is a great success. Thanks to this program Brazil dominates the technology for the isotopic enrichment of uranium. We have a valuable currency of exchange in this area. Although we don’t have personnel available it’s therefore possible to resume the sector, by reviving it through international cooperation, especially.

And the safety issue?
We have to adopt independent and efficient radio-protection regulatory systems that guarantee the safety of the existing power stations and of any future ones. What has so far been done in this area doesn’t? seem sufficient to me. Brazil doesn’t separate licensing from the supervision of activities in the nuclear area; so it isn’t complying with the 2003 recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which in fact were approved with the Brazilian vote, and despite the warning issued years ago by the scientific community. An irrefutable example: the accident in Goiânia gave rise to a bill that would correct this anomaly; it’s still on the back burner in the House of Representatives today. This inertia is the result of corporatist pressure from the functionalism of the CNEN. I’ve no doubt that nuclear energy will be fundamental for serving the world’s energy needs. Naturally, what happened in Japan will hold up the launch of new projects, perhaps for a long time. Recently there’s been talk of our alleged wind potential. In France, which generates almost 80% of the energy it consumes with its nuclear power stations, it’s estimated that wind power from marine generators is four times more expensive. There’s more potential in biomass, particularly sugarcane bagasse, whether by burning it directly, or using it as raw material in future installations for the enzymatic hydrolysis of pulp.

Since you left the ministry some of the scientific production indicators have been growing progressively. How would you assess these last few years?
Unfortunately, the scientific and technological system was also imbued with the official ideology that Brazil only began eight years ago. When I arrived at the ministry, despite the difficulties I faced, the indispensable participation of the private sector in the science and technology budget was 6%; when I left it had reached 30%. When Sérgio Rezende left the ministry in 2010 this percentage was 34%. We tripled the number of PhDs from 1000 to 3000 and the last administration also tripled it to 10,000. In relative terms it has increased very little; in absolute terms the volume of funds has grown with the GDP. When I left the ministry around 1% or 1.1% of the GDP was being spent on science and technology; now it’s 1.3%. The GDP increased, but the relative effort changed by almost nothing. The licensed patents’ indicator is still poor: 90% of patents are registered by non-residents. National scientific production has increased; the number frequently cited is 19,000 annual publications. But there has been a change in the counting basis; it’s broader today than the previous one used by the ISI.

The number of Brazilian journals in the ISI journal base has gone from a few dozen to more than one hundred.
The number naturally increased when the base changed. In other words, it was not such a great increase. This question leads me to refer again to the difficulties I faced and some of the achievements. One of them was the creation of the CPTEC [Weather Forecast and Climate Study Center, at Inpe], thanks to which Brazil started having its first world meteorological forecasts. The José Pelúcio Ferreira National Scientific Computing Laboratory, which left Rio where it functioned in Praia Vermelha, was set up on a new campus in Petrópolis. The National Light Synchrotron Laboratory also began working in the Fernando Henrique government, financed with funds that partly came from privatization of the CSN during the Itamar government. In the case of the so-called sector funds, in my administration we created a royalties fund coming from the revenue from oil concessions. This was earmarked for science and technology, thanks to a proposal from the then senator, Eliseu Resende, who re-established the Government’s oil monopoly. In the space area, we created the Brazilian Space Agency and two satellites were built at Inpe, in addition to two others that were built in collaboration with the Chinese. The sector has been well favored by continuity of the Scientific and Technological Development Program [PADCT] with the World Bank and by the creation of funds for Centers of Excellence, which became important milestones in the presence of Brazil in the context of world science.