Imprimir Republish


Luiz Eugênio Mello: Intense times

Neuroscientist revisits his three years as FAPESP's Scientific Director

Mello (wearing the tie), with Scientific Board advisors

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

This month, neuroscientist Luiz Eugênio Araújo de Moraes Mello will be back in the lab at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) more frequently than in previous years. He will also take part in new projects, one of which is related to youth outreach in the field of science. As FAPESP’s Scientific Director since April of 2020, Mello decided to not run for reelection late last year and left the institution on April 26. He will be replaced by geneticist Márcio de Castro Silva Filho, of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP).

Mello assumed the role of scientific director amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During his first year and part of his second, he was focused on pursuing and implementing actions that could be useful in fighting the disease. He also handled urgent situations, such as repatriating scholars who were abroad when the borders closed. Acting swiftly, the Foundation has supported studies and clinical trials, raised private healthcare funds, and encouraged researchers to strive to understand COVID-19 in order to suggest treatment methods.

Age 65
Field of expertise
Molecular biology, neuroscience, scientific management, and technology
Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP)
Educational background
Bachelor’s in Medicine, Master’s and Doctorate in Molecular Biology from UNIFESP
Scientific output
163 articles and 2 triadic patents

Internally, during his run as director, Mello dedicated himself to improving ongoing processes. Supported by a team of researchers and staff, he sought to streamline the documentation required for submitting proposals and make the Foundation’s website more user-friendly for those seeking information. He also sought to refine the information required of candidates requesting aid and scholarships. He created and discontinued programs, while modifying and strengthening others. Of the 30 Engineering Research Centers/Applied Research Centers created since 2013, for example, 14 were created in the last three years.

Internationally, he expanded FAPESP’s participation in the Global Research Council (GRC), an entity that brings together more than 60 research-funding agencies from all continents, appointing one of the members of FAPESP’s Adjunct Coordination, Euclides Mesquita Neto, as the head of the organization’s Executive Secretariat and proposing that FAPESP cohost (together with NWO) the event in The Hague, Netherlands, this year.

In this interview, Mello takes stock of his tenure and talks about his research in neuroscience and how unattractive science seems to be to young people today.

At the start of your term, you believed it was possible to make internal changes as the scientific director in order to make the Foundation more efficient. Three years later, what have you been able to change?
A lot. I’ll mention a simple measure that was quite effective in terms of time. We used to give advisors a maximum of 30 days to issue an opinion on a research project’s merit. Responses came within 25 days on average. We changed this deadline from 30 to 21 days. The average time dropped to 18 days, meaning we gained one week in processing efficiency with this small change alone. There are several other changes that have been made related to SAGe [the platform for submitting and managing the Foundation’s projects], which have reduced the length of proposal submission forms—in some cases, the number of fields have been cut in half. We created a link to Orcid [a number sequence that identifies the researcher and automatically aggregates their research] in SAGe, which facilitates researcher and advisor registration. This is particularly important for foreigners, because registration with the system now begins with Orcid, which extracts almost all relevant information. On a practical level, this expands our capacity for international advisory services. These are often very simple and small changes that have a big impact. I am glad that I was able to adjust and improve what was already good, and I am sad that I didn’t do as much as I think I could have.

There is also some new information now requested, such as gender-related information.
You are absolutely right. The field was restricted—male and female. Now, we mirror IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics], which helps establish data-backed policies. The skin color field also didn’t exist. I couldn’t tell you how many people with black or brown skin sent projects to FAPESP, because this field wasn’t available. Now it is. There are some changes to the resume summary, both for those who present and write them, and for those who will read and evaluate them. Another example: the pandemic entailed significant family-related caretaking. For those who have had to provide intensive care for a family member, they were asked to describe this clearly, because it can impact academic performance, for example. This was one of the measures we created because new policies can’t be created without basing them on data.

Which new policies were established as a basis for this change?
A cross-sectional Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion program was created. This has been in the works for a long time and is the result of Professor Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida’s active participation in the GRC, in which she leads a working group that discusses this topic. One of the concerns that has been identified in agencies across the world is the lack of granular, that is, more refined, data. This might be truer in countries were women’s rights are restricted, such as in the Middle East. FAPESP’s affirmative policies are trailing behind if we compare them to what universities have already implemented. We are introducing actions in this area 15 or 20 years late, but at the same time in history as other national and international agencies are beginning to discuss the issue more actively. It’s evident, for example, that scholarship applications submitted by men and women are similar. They vary according to the field of knowledge, but they are similar on average. In the exact sciences, there are fewer women submitting applications than men, which is also due to a lower number of female undergraduates and graduates. The success rate is similar if I look at entry-level scholarships, but for postdoctoral scholarships, the success rate is lower for women. Why? This might reflect time spent childrearing. We don’t yet have the results of the changes we implemented. But today, if we have a man and a woman applying for a singular scholarship, and the woman has one or two children or if she is caring for a loved one, and their resumes are similar, the scholarship should be awarded to the woman. Because she has an additional aspect to be considered in the review process. We haven’t really advertised this change much.

Isn’t it important to shine light on these actions?
Yes, so that people are aware. Otherwise, there would be cases where people may opt out of a program or project that they feel is not intended for them. We have had several campaigns that were a success because they were very focused. For example: FAPESP has some programs that everyone knows about, such as BIOTA, BIOEN, and the Research Program on Global Climate Change. On the other hand, eScience is a program that researchers hear less about. However, data science is important for all areas of scientific research. With this in mind, we decided to advertise eScience, in 2022, and chose to promote the humanities and social sciences. By looking at social networks, for example, we can understand human interactions and a lot of other things. This can be seen in anthropological, sociological, and political science studies… Not to mention the issues impacting elections. All of this makes up data science. So, we opened a request for humanities and social sciences, which was a success. If we had done a general request for all areas, we may have had people opt out.

Let’s discuss the pandemic. What did FAPESP do and how was it impactful?
For me, the pandemic came with a set of challenges: managing a new team and working virtually while using systems that were unfamiliar to us. It was a very challenging position to be in. On the other hand, when the pandemic began, in March, FAPESP had 400 researchers abroad who needed to return, but there were no available flights, and the borders were closing left and right. First, we had to work to resolve this issue, to extend the scholarship deadlines. Then, we had to work to obtain exceptions for booking air travel. All of this was resolved. The Foundation’s team did an exceptional job getting everyone home.

On the other hand, there were concerns regarding treatment and vaccines.
Relevant actions and studies were carried out to search for a vaccine and to understand the infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. By way of an example, I remember a study on the anticoagulant Heparin, by Elnara Negri, of USP’s School of Medicine and a pulmonologist at the Sírio-Libanês Hospital. Early variants of the virus caused very complex vascular phenomena, which significantly contributed to mortality. FAPESP funded Elnara’s research, as well as the research performed by Helena Nader, of UNIFESP, who also works with Heparin, her main focus for a considerable time. We have supported 17 excellence centers—with the recent additions, approved in April, there are now 22—the RIDC [Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers], for more than two decades. We held a meeting with all of the RIDC coordinators to communicate that they would have more support to research the disease and its treatments. It was not a passive action. I didn’t just sit here, receiving and analyzing the proposals that came in. FAPESP mobilized the scientific community in São Paulo and contributed to clinical trials for the vaccine. We had two vaccines tested in Brazil: the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, at the São Paulo School of Medicine; and the CoronaVac vaccine, at the Butantan Institute. We supported both trials. At the Butantan Institute, we contributed R$82.5 million. However, R$50 million of this did not come from FAPESP, but from the Todos pela Saúde (All for Health) consortium. And the people at the consortium say they only came up with the R$50 million because the Foundation contributed R$32.5 million and was the guarantor. It was as if we had added R$50 million to the Foundation’s budget because, after all, it was more money going towards actions that we wanted to take: supporting research to fight the disease.

During the pandemic, FAPESP mobilized the scientific community in São Paulo and contributed to clinical trials for the vaccine

These actions began during the transition from the previous scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, to your administration, correct?
Correct. These actions were discussed with FAPESP’s Executive Board. The first project supported by the Foundation during the pandemic, in this area, was approved four days after having been presented. That’s an incredible turnaround. It shows that we were responding extremely quickly to a very urgent issue. The Foundation did everything within its power: it sought out other resources, it encouraged groups that may not have been working in the area, it established more streamlined funding mechanisms, and, finally, it spearheaded an action that was much more comprehensive. Most of the time, science is conducted using public resources. Therefore, the result of said science should be public. This is the basis of Open Science: working with published data accessible by the general public. But the data used to produce this science is another thing that could be accessible as well. This is called Open Data and it is much more comprehensive than Open Science. We created an Open Data initiative with critical support provided by Cláudia Medeiros, of UNICAMP’s Institute of Computing and who helped coordinate FAPESP’s Research Program on eScience and Data Science. This initiative is called COVID-19 Data Sharing/BR.

Are you referring to sharing information from research on COVID-19?
That’s what it’s all about. The first institutions to share data were the Fleury Laboratory, the Sírio-Libanês Hospital, and the Albert Einstein Hospital, three private institutions in São Paulo. How much would it cost to buy the results of all the COVID tests done at Fleury? And the hospitalization data at Sírio and Einstein? A lot of money. This is exceptional data, and we make it freely available to Brazil and the world. Public data requires a cultural shift. It’s not trivial because those who produce it feel they own the data. The source data from the study’s final product, which is the paper, should also be made public, that is, freely accessible.

Is Brazil attractive to foreign researchers?
It used to be more. In recent years, several aspects of Brazilian society, perhaps political, have progressively made Brazil less attractive. Another aspect is that the science we conduct entails a very low degree of internationalization. Few speak English. Aside from this, I think that São Paulo could be seen as a benchmark. While our researchers and students may look toward the Global North, we may be looked toward by several others from the Global South. Even to the Global North, we may be attractive when it comes to research on the Amazon. The flow of ideas and people is key, and we need to keep working towards internationalization, sending our researchers and students abroad—which we already do successfully—and making even more of an effort to welcome foreigners. I’m not talking about “academic poaching,” but about flow, about people coming and going.

On this topic, we should talk about FAPESP’s participation in the GRC, which has increased significantly during your tenure. Why was this important?
This was a huge challenge I had to take on. We had already hosted a GRC event, in 2018/2019, in partnership with the United States’ National Science Foundation. Brito Cruz became chairman of the executive board. What else could we achieve? During my administration, we worked to expand our activities within the GRC, not only with Ana Maria Fonseca spearheading the working group on equity, diversity, and inclusion, but also with Alicia Kowaltowski joining the group overseeing metrics responsible for evaluating the research. Then, we volunteered to take over GRC’s institutional communications and the executive secretariat. It is a five-year term—the GRC is new, founded 11 years ago. In the first five years, the executive secretary was the DFG [German Research Foundation]; during the second five-year term, it was UKRI [UK Research and Innovation].

And the third…
FAPESP. It’s noteworthy. It’s a strategic position, like the executive secretary for the United Nations for science. We only managed to secure the position because of work that went beyond just one administration. It began with Brito and continued through my tenure, which gave FAPESP a very prestigious position. While executive secretary, we don’t impose our agenda, but we try to reconcile and accommodate it. At the helm is Euclides Mesquita Neto, a UNICAMP professor and adjunct coordinator at FAPESP. He is here and, of course, hears and sees what is going on. Ultimately, even if unintentionally, he ends up influencing the agenda and bringing up topics that are relevant to us.

During your tenure, there were important advances in the Engineering Research Centers (ERC), with new corporate partnerships. Why this focus?
In March of this year, we announced two more ERCs. We are expanding these centers for various important reasons. One of which is that it multiplies our budget. When FAPESP puts R$10 into a center, Company A, B, or C puts another R$10 or more in to amplify the results of the investment. And, for many areas where research and development are encouraged—for example, in the oil and gas sector—we don’t do one-to-one partnerships, but rather two-to-one, three-to-one, four-to-one. For every R$1 that FAPESP invests, the oil and gas company invests R$2, R$3, or R$4. And this money always goes to a science and technology institution in the state of São Paulo, where it is used for reagents, equipment, and scholarships. That is, companies pay for scholarships, in full or in part. We have a partnership with the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, along with the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, which has accumulated around R$500 million in funds. This money has increasing yields every year and we allocate part of these funds here. During my tenure, we actively sought out opportunities to use, apply, and invest these funds for scientific and technological development. One way was building the Applied Research Centers. The most recent request of this kind has been the high-performance computing area, which will make R$100 million.

Do fundraising agencies from various countries tend to invest more funds in applied science? What is FAPESP’s stance?
There are different views and, as a colleague of mine often says, both are bona fide and qualified. Several FAPESP members have different understandings on the subject. There is space to develop and expand other lines of funding. FAPESP is not FINEP [Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects], it is not BNDES [Brazilian Development Bank], it is not EMBRAPII [Brazilian Research and Industrial Innovation Company]. We don’t need to emulate these agencies. Today, FAPESP is one of the world’s best funding agencies. Should we do more? Perhaps. We must, however, discuss new missions and duties with new funds. We need to see how big the blanket is. If it’s big enough, great. I fear that it will fall short soon enough if we accumulate so many duties that don’t fit into the mission defined in the 1989 Constitution of the state of São Paulo.

Fellowship funding decreased in 2021 compared to 2020, while research grants increased. Why?Actually, our demand as a whole fell, from 2019 to 2020, by 34%. From 2020 to 2021, it continued to fall 14%. From 2021 to 2022, it began to rise again by 13%; and from 2022 to 2023, it continued to rise, but we are still below 2019 levels. This is why we have launched several new programs over the years and approved five RIDCs in 2023. Alone, the five RIDCs will require the reallocation of up to R$1 billion. It’s a significant investment.

And what about other programs?
There are several where the Foundation has helped boost high demand. For the Generation Initiative, there will be more than 30 projects, with a little more than R$1 million in funding for each project. This program is for people who completed their doctorate within the last six years and who, when submitting their application, have not yet secured employment. These are people who are not in the system. A total of R$94 million was allocated to the most recent round of the Young Investigator Award 2 program. In the first PROEDUCA request, in partnership with the State Department of Education, we put R$18 million into the first round. If we add up all of the actions taken during this period, from April 2020 to April 2023, they will exceed R$2 billion. We are stimulating, promoting, driving the system. But careers in science are becoming less attractive worldwide.

I think the current generations may have become accustomed to a certain potential for easy success. My son, for example, goes to college and has a classmate who is an influencer with 1 million followers. He must be about 25 years old now. I’m not saying it’s easy—doing anything well is never simple. But it seems like an instant gratification thing: I’ll snap my finger and become Whindersson Nunes [comedian and YouTuber].

It’s never like that, is it?
No, it’s not. There’s only one Whindersson Nunes, and he must have endured a lot. He’s always reinventing himself, doing new things. This is a world where everything appears to be immediate. Between having to study mathematics and becoming an influencer, the latter is more attractive. Now, how many people will become a Neymar or a Whindersson Nunes? It’s not easy to become an ultra-successful player, an influencer, or an ultra-successful scientist. But I think that there’s much more room to become a high-level scientist than a high-level soccer player or influencer.

During my tenure, we actively sought out opportunities to use, apply, and invest science and technology funds outside of the Foundation

But you have to study.
Studying is wonderful, learning things is great. It’s pleasureful. When you learn something, it’s like a light bulb that was already inside of you turns on. Saint Augustine wrote about this, although he attributed it to God’s presence. If we can fit the pieces together, the light switches on. And that’s what it feels like to learn. It’s amazing.

Does the Mentoring Initiative strengthen researchers’ careers?
We created this program, thanks to Catarina Porto’s leadership, with the intention of having an experienced professional, the mentor, guiding younger researchers to overcome obstacles and challenges they face in their professional careers. The program began in 2022 and consists of different activities related to strengthening the researcher’s career in academia, the industry, and the government. The activities are divided into modules: FAPESP and the São Paulo research system; strengthening your scientific career; research ethics and integrity training; ad hoc advisor for research-funding training; and specific topics for supporting activities related to the researcher’s career in science, technology, and innovation.

In these three years as Scientific Director, have you been able to do research?
I have. In 2009, I became the Director of Research, Development, and Innovation at Vale. When I took this position, I changed my work schedule at UNIFESP and presented an action plan to the Permanent Teaching Personnel Committee (CPPD), which was approved. I kept my academic ties, and therefore my research activity, as a neuroscientist. What I went on to do at Vale had nothing to do with neuroscience. I joined Vale as a Level 1A researcher for the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Nine years later, I left as a Level 1A researcher for the CNPq. So, I maintained an intense level of research activity. It’s my life.

Are your studies still focused on epilepsy?
They have to do with epilepsy. When I started studying epilepsy, there were a number of important papers on the subject, and my supervisor, Esper Abrão Cavalheiro, always highlighted the concept of “epilepsy, a window to the brain.” Epilepsy allows us to understand fundamental nervous system phenomena that have nothing to do with the disease. With epilepsy, often what we have are many neurons firing action potentials, working together in synchrony. One of the nervous system’s problems is that the phenomena are small scale and it’s hard to see them. By refining our techniques, it has become easier and easier to do this, but still, when we observe an epileptic manifestation, the biological phenomenon becomes clearer, more unambiguous. Often what we have to do is separate the signal from the noise.

All to understand how the brain works?
At all times, our 80 billion neurons are functioning and triggering action potentials. For those merely observing these actions, it’s a mess. This mess is us thinking, eating, smiling, remembering, sleeping… Understanding this complexity is very difficult. Working with epilepsy allows you to look at neurons in synchronous, organized activity, in which there are some responses: the proteins and genes behind the actions, the ion channels that have opened or closed. You can study subtle phenomena, extrapolated by this situation that is atypical—epilepsy.

Will you go back to UNIFESP now?
I never left. I will continue researching in tandem with my new duties. One of which is my position as director of the new science museum for children. French-Brazilian businessman and philanthropist Patrice de Camaret started the project with the goal of leaving a legacy.

After the past three years, what would you say to the future scientific director?
The first is that the position is remarkable because you can influence the research environment in the state of São Paulo, to shape and influence, to direct in other areas, which is very rewarding. The aspect of being guided by major, general principles and trying to not make exceptions is very important. There will always be pressure, of varying kinds, put on people in any position. At FAPESP, perhaps that pressure is even greater, and it is up to the scientific director to weigh what makes sense, within the general guiding principles, ideally through joint discussions shared with other management bodies within the institution. But never as unilateral decisions.

Why did you decide not to run for reelection as scientific director?
As I see it, certain circumstances make it easier or more difficult to do the job. At one point, back in 2022, it was clear to me that the situation at FAPESP was not conducive to my being able to contribute in a relevant way. Maybe other people, with other backgrounds, other personality traits, could do this better. When this became clear to me, I tried to work to preserve what I believe should be the scientific director’s vision. My opinion is that FAPESP is what it is, not in spite of its scientific directors, but because of them. I am tremendously proud to succeed Brito, [José Fernando] Perez, Flávio Fava, William Saad Hossne [1927–2016] and so many others who served as scientific director. I hope that I have contributed to improving the institution and have in no way hindered its operations.