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Human Resources

Limited mobility

Research shows that Brazilian researchers enjoy little career mobility

036-039_Mobilidade_239-01A study conducted by a team from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) shows that Brazilian researchers tend to work and spend their careers not very far from the institutions where they did their undergraduate studies, suggesting that career mobility is low in Brazil. The authors, who are with the UFMG’s Department of Computer Sciences, analyzed the geographic distribution of roughly 6,000 researchers with ties to 101 national institutes of science and technology, or INCTs, which are scientific collaboration networks formed by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and state research foundations. It was found that only 20% of researchers work more than 500 kilometers away from the institution where they began their academic lives. Most settled in jobs less than 100 kilometers from the university where they initiated their careers. The same phenomenon was noted among researchers who did post-doctoral work abroad: 81% returned to Brazil and established their lives in the regions they came from.

The article, published in the October 2015 issue of the journal PLOS One, confirms a career pattern where most researchers receive their doctorate in Brazil and only strengthen their collaborative ties with foreign teams during post-doctoral studies. “The career paths observed in our study point to a Brazilian tendency to remain at the same institution or region through one’s entire career,” observed Clodoveu Augusto Davis Junior, one of the paper’s authors and advisor to master’s candidate Caio Alves Furtado, who is the principal author. The study is part of an endeavor by UFMG researchers to study phenomena and trends in Brazilian science using data from the Lattes Platform, a database that holds four million academic résumés (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 233). Geoinformatics techniques were applied to the information drawn from these résumés to form maps that reveal the career paths of researchers.

036-039_Mobilidade_239-02Fabio Ribeiro de Camargo, from the state of Paraná, is a case in point. He received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) in 1985 and left the country in 2009 to pursue his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds in England. During the more than five years that he spent abroad, Camargo collaborated with research teams from other countries and spent brief periods in Australia, Japan, and South Africa. “This mobility allowed me to become involved with a variety of research lines and opened up opportunities for making my work known abroad,” he says.

In 2014, Camargo spent his vacation in Brazil with his family. While there, the Curitiba mayor’s office invited him to serve as director of public lighting. The challenge would be to modernize lighting management in the state capital by applying smart city concepts – that is, by using intelligent networks to bring energy sources and multiservice data together to automate urban services and avoid waste. “I accepted the offer because it represented a new challenge in my career,” says Camargo.

The UFMG study shows that only 32% of the researchers with ties to INCTs engaged in some form of advanced study – like a post-doctorate – outside their home state or abroad. But the behavior varied by region. For example, most researchers in São Paulo and other states in Brazil’s Southeast region – analyzed separately in the article – are originally from this same region. But a temporary migration pattern is observed in the North, Northeast, Central-West, and South, where a significant portion of researchers leave their home regions for their undergraduate and graduate studies and then return home to work.

The article also says that only a small contingent of Brazilians resettle abroad, which contrasts with the picture elsewhere around the world. A study released in 2010 by Linda Ana Carine Van Bouwel, of the University of Leuven in Belgium, shows that half the European students who went to the United States to do their doctorates in economics from 1950 to 2006 ended up finding jobs there. Most of the others went to work elsewhere in Europe, while only a minority returned to their homelands.

Certain features of the Brazilian university system account for this low mobility. “The UFMG study confirms expectations,” says the sociologist Simon Schwartzman, researcher with the Institute for Labor and Society (IETS). “At Brazil’s public universities, it’s unusual for researchers to switch institutions, given the hiring rules for public jobs,” he explains. Under the Brazilian model, researchers are hired as public employees, which encourages them to settle into an institution quite early on. In the case of federal and some state universities, new faculty must enter at the rank of lecturers whatever their qualifications, and it might be 24 months before they are eligible to advance a level. This discourages researchers with stable careers from switching institutions.

“If a university wants to set up a research group on China, for instance, it’s not going to go after some renowned expert on the topic, as would be the case at an institution in the United States or Europe. The habit here in Brazil is to go after an early career professor who is interested and train him in the subject,” explains Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP). Mobility is greater in the U.S. university system partly because institutions negotiate specific contract terms when they want to attract a certain professional.

Edgar Zanotto, professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), emphasizes that it is common for researchers in the United States to receive job offers because the system follows market logic. “Having the best-qualified professionals means offering good salaries,” says Zanotto, who has been a professor at UFSCar for 39 years. According to him, salaries are similar across Brazilian universities. “All the professors in the same category are paid roughly the same.”

Zanotto recognizes that he fits the profile portrayed in the UFMG study. In the 1970s, he received his bachelor’s degree in materials engineering at UFSCar, where he was hired as an entry-level lecturer in 1976. He lived in England from 1979 to 1982, doing his doctorate at the University of Sheffield. He returned to UFSCar shortly thereafter as a senior lecturer. But he still worked to have an international presence in his career by collaborating with groups abroad and spending his vacation time as a visiting professor at universities in Italy and the United States. Zanotto explains that the main reason he decided to stay at the same university for over three decades were the vitreous material laboratories that he set up there. In his opinion, in the exact and biological sciences – where laboratory equipment and infrastructure are necessary – it is natural for a researcher to want to have ties to an institution. “It took me years to set up this structure. All told, these laboratories have 900 square meters of floor space, as well as sophisticated equipment. I can’t take them with me if I decide to switch institutions,” he points out.

In the opinion of the physicist Ronaldo Mota, president of Estácio de Sá University in Rio de Janeiro and an expert in scientific and educational policy, the notion that a researcher needs to have his own laboratory and must therefore settle in one place is changing in Brazil. “Nowadays, there are more and more shared laboratories that guarantee that multiple users have access to modern equipment,” says Mota.

036-039_Mobilidade_239-03The flow of researchers can help breathe fresh air into scientific production at an institution. Simon Schwartzman warns that low mobility can promote inbreeding at a university, meaning that professors favor hiring their former students. “This isn’t healthy, because it doesn’t bring other perspectives or world views into a department,” he says. Bringing in people from other places is an efficacious way for universities to renew themselves and innovate. “Mobility helps diversify cultures and ways of thinking critically,” he says. Many researchers have managed to overcome constraints on mobility by establishing collaborative networks with researchers from other institutions.

Scientific collaboration is on the rise in Brazil. A study published in 2014 shows that from 2008 to 2010, Brazilian researchers engaged in almost one million collaborations, in comparison with the nearly 63,000 collaborations observed from 1990 to 1992 (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 218). “When we need a qualified researcher, we establish a collaborative network,” reports Luiz Cesar de Queiroz Ribeiro, coordinator of the Observatory of the Metropolis INCT. The team that Ribeiro currently coordinates includes people from the cities of Belém, Goiânia, and Brasília, among others – and none of them had to be hired.

Interactions between Brazilians and foreigners are less common. In her doctoral dissertation, defended in 2010, Samile Vanz, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), showed that the ratio of articles written by Brazilian researchers in partnership with foreign authors stagnated at around 30%, while the absolute number of these collaborations has been growing at a much slower pace than collaborations within Brazil. “Today, researchers here interact more with international groups than in the past, but it’s still not much when we compare it to other Latin American countries, like Chile and Mexico,” Mota says.