LÉO RAMOSThe government of Argentina established its Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation (Mincyt) in 2007, and throughout the past eight years the same individual has been at its helm: Lino Barañao, 61, a native of Buenos Aires, holder of a PhD in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires and an expert in animal biotechnology. During his career as a scientist, he has been a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany and at Pennsylvania State University in the United States. He later became director of the Reproduction Biology and Animal Biotechnology Laboratory, affiliated with the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (known by its Spanish acronym CONICET), Argentina’s principal agency for the advancement of science and technology. In 2002, Barañao was a member of the first team in Latin America to clone a calf, a heifer named Pampa. In 2003, he assumed chairmanship of the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion (ANPCYT), established in the 1990s to introduce greater flexibility into the financing of research, which until then had been concentrated in CONICET. He headed ANPCYT until 2007, when he was invited by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner to take over the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation.
His administration of Mincyt has impacted the way that Argentina does science. The expansion of investment in infrastructure spurred the construction of 190,000 square meters of laboratory space. A program for repatriating Argentine researchers brought more than a thousand of them back from abroad and set them up in public research centers and at companies. In addition, a network of relationships was established with more than 5,000 Argentine scientists who had settled in other countries, making them spearheads of international scientific collaboration. The modest investments made in research and development (R&D) by Argentine companies—76% of R&D activities are financed by the State—continue to act as a bottleneck in that country’s scientific development; Argentina has been resorting to private-public partnerships in order to change that situation.
|Cellular biology, reproductive physiology, and animal biotechnology
|Undergraduate (1976) and doctoral (1981) degrees in chemical sciences from the School of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. Guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry (1981); associate researcher at Pennsylvania State University (1982-84)
|Reproduction Biology and Animal Biotechnology Laboratory (CONICET)
|Published more than 50 articles in international scientific journals and five chapters of books. Served as advisor to six doctoral degree recipients.
Barañao visited Brazil in August 2015. He came to FAPESP headquarters, discussed the expansion of collaborations with São Paulo researchers, and reported that construction of the LLAMA telescope (English acronym for Large Latin American Millimeter Array) in the Argentine part of the Andes mountain range, conceived under a partnership in which São Paulo researchers are responsible for the purchase of a 12-meter antenna whose total cost of $9.2 million is being financed by FAPESP, is on schedule. The Argentines will assemble the physical structure to house the equipment and take charge of its operations, which are scheduled to begin in 2017. The minister also visited the Synchrotron Light Laboratory, in Campinas, a facility used frequently by Argentine researchers, and went to Brasília to meet with his Brazilian counterpart Aldo Rebelo, Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation. While in the federal capital, he said that the challenges facing Brazil and Argentina complement each other, and spoke in favor of greater integration among scientists from the two countries. Barañao made a point of reserving time on his agenda to grant Pesquisa FAPESP the following interview:
Brazil ranks third among countries with which Argentina produces scientific articles in international collaboration, behind only the United States and Spain. In which fields of knowledge has the collaboration between the two been the most productive?
That has been changing over time. A few decades ago, physics and chemistry predominated. Later, with the creation of the Argentine-Brazilian Center for Biotechnology, the CABBIO [a binational network of research groups established in 1987 that has now supported more than a hundred projects], collaboration intensified in areas like biology and biotechnology applied to both plant and animal production. More recently, collaboration at that Brazilian-Argentine center has significantly increased in structural biology and in the field of health, especially stem-cell research.
That is one of your areas of interest, isn’t it?
Yes, I also work with stem cells.
During FAPESP Week Buenos Aires, in April 2015, round tables were held on research topics that interest both countries, such as energy, functional foods, nanoscience, and quantum data. Would you highlight about any of these fields?
There is a new initiative related to studies in quantum physics and cold atoms. It is something quite original and will be able to incorporate cutting-edge science into the cooperative effort.
Is the ministry interested in expanding partnerships with researchers from the state of São Paulo? In which fields?
More than thinking about a specific area, what we’re interested in is assimilating the good practices of an innovative private sector. We see the degree of participation by the private sector in research as unique to the state of São Paulo. Our big challenge is to connect knowledge with the generation of wealth. So we are interested in proceeding with projects that have potential applications in the near term, as well as studying successful cases that can show the Argentine business community that investing in R&D is profitable. The qualitative difference observed in São Paulo is the result of a process of natural selection. It’s not that Argentine businesspeople are intrinsically less inclined to innovation, but because of our years under a liberal economy, when we had an open market, those businesses that had invested in research and tried to compete fairly by incorporating knowledge were punished. They are slowly recovering. But a comparison with successful examples really helps, especially when the model is so nearby, as is the case with São Paulo. It doesn’t make sense to compare ourselves with Ireland or the Scandinavian countries because cultural factors make those countries a lot different from ours, while the cultural differences between Brazil and Argentina are not that big.
In Argentina, 76% of R&D investments depend on the public sector. What strategies is your country adopting to try to expand company participation in those investments?
In São Paulo, companies contribute 61% of the investments in R&D, a very high percentage that stems from the productive matrix. In Argentina, the extractive industries, including agriculture, mining, and unprocessed products still play an important role in our economy. Those companies are not investing in R&D, either because their processes are already established or because they are subsidiaries of foreign companies that employ technology that was already fully developed. Agriculture, however, has begun to invest more in the last decade and now there is a partnership known as Bioceres among producers that has set up a research center on a university campus. This is the first case of an industry that has understood the importance of biotechnology in achieving competitiveness and wants to develop its own technology. But of course when we try to measure the impact of that effort, we find it is not yet detectable. Another sector whose impact is growing is software, a services sector. Argentina now exports more software than meat. This is a fact, although software is not as delicious….Individual software companies are investing as high a proportion of their profits as an American company does, because a software company is typically competitive and continually improving its processes. That industry is growing gradually. We don’t yet have any companies with sales of $500 million or $1 billion. If we did, the percentage invested might be more significant. I’m confident that as we achieve diversification in our productive matrix, where companies have more aggregate knowledge, we will see a higher percentage of investment by the private sector.
The Argentine government’s investment in research has risen in recent years in fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, agroindustry, health, and information technology, which promote high-risk investments in innovations within government institutions with the intention of passing them on to the private sector when they mature. Has this model worked out?
What we did was set up a fund that first finances pre-established industries, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, the environment, and others. But in addition we finance only public-private partnerships. In other words, the effort has to be a joint one: on one side, a researcher with an innovative idea and, on the other, a businessman willing to get involved by contributing the investment needed to get the product into the market if it passes the success test.
The government contributing venture capital, is that it?
The public sector invests in the risk phase and the private sector joins in later. To develop monoclonal antibodies, for example, we granted $7 million in subsidies. No pharmaceutical company in Argentina could invest that much venture capital, so this was something new. One company built a factory that cost $25 million, but did so on the basis of a product that had been tested and was ready for marketing. We expanded that kind of public-private partnership. Now we have more than 30 underway, with concrete developments. We believe these partnerships are an effective way to tie together those two different worlds. The main problem is that the reward mechanisms in the private and public sectors are different. The private sector uses profitability as a reward, since that is its lifeblood, while in the public sector the researchers are looking for recognition from their peers in the form of publications, citations.
How do you reconcile the two reward systems?
It is hard to make them compatible, unless there is some big incentive, such as a loan that a researcher would not be able to get for his work by traditional means. By participating in those partnerships, researchers can buy better equipment and attract more interns to their teams, yet this won’t usually impede the ability to publish. Often they end up publishing things that they had developed for the partnerships as a contribution to general knowledge. We can also encourage that coordination by using instruments like the Software Act, which has increased investment by companies in that industry, especially in R&D—because to be eligible for the tax exemption they need to conduct R&D and invest. This approach has been beneficial. Companies have a real incentive to allocate some of their profits to research because they are compensated through a different channel. In short, I’m talking about a combination of promotional and tax instruments that I believe is the most appropriate tool.
What are the prospects for the partnership between CONICET and FAPESP for construction of the LLAMA project? What can we expect, in terms of scientific results, from that project? Besides raising funds, what kinds of aspirations are associated with the forging of joint projects?
The LLAMA project is under way and fulfilling its timetable exactly as anticipated. It is now in the engineering stage, designing the bases for the antenna, the logistical part, but CONICET, the ministry, and the government of the province of Salta are all contributing funds as expected. That is why we believe it will begin operating on the date originally established. This type of initiative has two results streams. On the one hand there are the scientific results, such as being able to analyze energy sources in stellar space, learning about the origin of the Universe, and finding out how it has been evolving. That has to do with satisfying human curiosity, something I think we all share: the desire to find out where we came from and what is happening with the Universe. However, in practice we realize that to achieve the scientific results we must develop technologies that can also be used for other things. And so engineering and communications are evolving, because we have to make detectors and build extremely precise instruments. That is what happened with the “God Machine” [the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC] that belongs to CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research]. Its development, for example, developed technologies that can be applied to medical diagnostics. I think the LLAMA is going to contribute to universal knowledge and develop technologies, but most especially it will be a very strong symbol of the cooperation between Brazil and Argentina in a project that contributes to world science. From the political standpoint, which retrofeeds investments in science, it sends a very clear signal. Furthermore, the provincial government of Salta is also supporting the project, actually because of its tourist appeal, joining gastronomy with astronomy.
The idea is to connect astronomy with regional development through gastronomy. It happens that this kind of enterprise attracts astronomy aficionados who want to see some sort of telescope and are looking for overnight lodging and good food. Chile is doing this to promote tourism, aimed at a select group of tourists who don’t come just to perform their own observations but also to get to know the surroundings. Obviously you can’t see stars during the day, and so you hike, go shopping…I believe it can be a tourist corridor, an interesting initiative, since it can also help to transmit the culture of the region.
The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation was established in 2007, according to what you said at the time, to put science in the service of the economic development of Argentina. Is the emphasis on transfer of knowledge to the general public a way to legitimize the investment in science?
Yes. After eight years of that policy we have seen some concrete results. I have already mentioned the production of monoclonal antibodies in our country. Soon we will also be exporting them to developing countries under a World Health Organization (WHO) program. In other words, not only will we supply the domestic market but we will also become global suppliers of this technology. The development of drought-resistant varieties of plants can also have an impact, estimated at $20 billion a year if in fact they improve production on a world scale, especially when we consider the consequences of climate changes that involve major fluctuations in rainfall. In the field of health, we see development of new cancer therapies; because of the contribution to the satellite industry, a private company is developing nanosatellites. We have plenty of examples that show that it takes time, at least five or six years, to achieve results. Now we’re beginning to harvest the fruits.
You tend to use the verb “pasteurize” when referring to the Ministry’s strategy for Argentine science. Would you explain the concept?
The concept of “pasteurization” has to do with a book by Donald E. Stokes, entitled Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Innovation. He recommends that the United States—and I think this applies to the developing countries—do basic science inspired by use. That makes it possible to overcome the original contradiction between basic and applied science. We can help generate original knowledge by solving problems. What we are advocating is somehow resolving problems by using several different disciplines and a huge amount of imagination.
You were chair of the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion, established in 1996 to introduce greater flexibility into the financing of research. It was said that CONICET had grown too big to be able to think about strategies. How do you see the role of that agency today?
We separated policy development, financing, and execution. Policies are under the aegis of the Ministry; financing is handled by the agency, which has been decentralized within the ministry and has its own mechanisms for evaluating requests from both private and public sectors, and CONICET is the executing arm, as well as financing specific projects. That division of labor has been extremely effective, since it permits an objective evaluation of projects that go beyond the résumés of the researchers. We say they are complementary criteria. The existence of those two service desks has also proved useful because there are projects that sometimes have no current concrete application, but will have one in the future, and then they will be financed by the other service desk.
How would you sum up the Raíces program, which since 2008 has repatriated more than a thousand Argentine scientists who had settled in other countries? Where are they working?
It has been very effective. It has not only repatriated researchers—we now have 1,160 living and working in Argentina in both the public and private sectors—but has also established very active connections with Argentine researchers who are living abroad. That has been accomplished by a system of grants that enables them to come to Argentina to work on organizing workshops and arranging interactions with companies. Not only have we brought back the researchers themselves, but we have also restored ties with almost 5,000 Argentine researchers who are working at different institutions elsewhere; hence we are recouping, with interest, the human capital we had invested out there.
Is Argentina still experiencing a brain drain?
We no longer have a brain drain. What we are doing with the grantees is to send them for short periods to specific destinations when they already have contracts in Argentina. In other words, we ensure that they will continue to train, but that they will return.