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Networks in the spotlight

Symposium will analyze the first results of the 122 National Institutes of Science and Technology

A UVA COSTRIUBAthree-day symposium, scheduled to take place in Brasilia in November, will make the first evaluation of 122 National Institutes of Science and Technology (INCTs), virtual networks of researchers that have been created in strategic areas or on overlapping themes. They have been formed thanks to a partnership between the federal and state foundations that fund research (FAPs); FAPESP finances 50% of the funds for the 44 institutes based in the state of São Paulo. The evaluation was provided for in the official launch notice in 2008, and constitutes a first parameter on the functioning of the program. The contracts with the institutes last for five years, but there is guaranteed funding for only the first three. The extension for a further two years will depend on the performance of the 122 institutes. It is possible that a new public tender will be launched next year. “It’s time to see if all are corresponding and if there was nothing artificial in the way the networks were formed,” says Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, a member of FAPESP’s Board and president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences between 1993 and 2004, who is a member of the program’s management committee.

The seminar in Brasilia will have 11 working groups distributed into major themes. Each project coordinator will present the partial results in sessions of 30 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of debate with the consultants in charge of the evaluation. Each INCT can mount a booth showing the results of their research. Krieger remembers that the initial goal of the program was to launch 45 institutes, but this number reached 122 after the FAPs offered to invest heavily in the program, giving significant counterpart funds to the networks based in their states. “The selection of proposals was done in the best possible way, but in a relatively short time. The quality of the proposals and the interest of the FAPs were evaluated. Now we will have an overall picture,” he says. Krieger says that it is also time to discuss what other areas, not covered in the first call, must be covered now, and correct the direction in the next tender. “Spontaneously demanded projects and those in strategic induced areas were considered, but there was not a very detailed induction. In the next call other needs will be discussed, “he says.

For the president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), physicist Carlos Aragão, the perception is that the program has taken off. He said that the INCTs are the most comprehensive program with thematic networks ever made and their main objective is to generate synergy between good research groups to give more quality and international prominence to Brazil’s science and technology. “But it’s still too early to be able to say how far group articulation is really boosting the quality of the research or if, in some networks, the members are producing together the same as they would have done in isolation,” he says. “The evaluation in November will give us a first panorama,” says Aragão.

030-035_INCTs_175-01The institutes began functioning between December 2008 and February 2010. Of the R$ 607 million committed to the project, FAPESP is responsible for R$ 113.4 million. The Foundation, which provides half the funds that supply the 44 institutes in the state of Sao Paulo, is second only to FNDCT (R$ 190 million) in the ranking of funding sources, followed by the CNPq (R$ 110 million), Fapemig ( R$ 36 million), Faperj (R$ 35.8 million), Capes (R$ 30 million), the BNDES (R $ 22.4 million), Petrobras (R$ 21.4 million) and the Ministry of Health (R$17.5 million). The FAPs of Amazonas (R$ 10.4 million), Pará (R$ 8 million), Santa Catarina (R$ 7.5 million), Rio Grande do Norte (R$ 2.1 million) and Piauí (R$ 1.5 million), and the Ministry of Education (R$ 1 million) complete the list of funders. “FAPESP definitely contributes to the INCT Program, being the second largest funder. We did this because the program has important qualities, including facilitating interaction among networks of researchers from all over the country, which makes an important contribution to the more than 400 thematic projects that FAPESP supports,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP. According to the Minister of Science and Technology, Sergio Rezende, FAPESP’s participation was fundamental to the program, since most of the students and qualified research groups in the country are concentratred in São Paulo. “São Paulo reflected its scientific capacity in the program and left a good example for the future. The FAPs that remained outside are now regretting it,” says Rezende.

According to the minister, the coordinators of the institutes have started to report in English in order to show the search results in a clear way. “I’ve read three or four reports and the results are beginning to appear,” he says. He admits that some areas were covered inadequately in the program: “There are many institutes in the health area, but only 10% in engineering. The sciences were also underrepresented. ” Of the 122 institutes, 39 are in the health area, 14 are in engineering, physics and mathematics, 11 in biotechnology and nanotechnology, 9 in social sciences, 9 in agribusiness, 7 in information technology and communication, 7 in studies on the Amazon, 7 in biodiversity and the environment, 7 in energy, 3 in Antarctica, 2 in nuclear power and 7 in other themes. In July, the MCT announced its intention to establish two new institutes in the field of marine sciences, a field of knowledge that had been left out of the projects contemplated. “Brazil has 8000 km of coastline and we must have institutes in this area,” says Rezende. The idea is that one of them will carry out studies on the coastline of the north and northeast of Brazil and the other in the south and southeast. “I hope the researchers have organizational capacity. If two proposals come for the same region, the one that loses will remain outside the network, which will be a pity.”

Rezende emphasizes that institute selection was strict. “In states that made more money available institutes might have been approved with a lower mark than in other states. But all went through an evaluation process and there were projects of great quality,” says the minister. For Rezende, the INCTs will be able to boost the results of the research groups in the country. “Although Brazil turns out almost 12,000 PhDs a year, there are a still not enough in certain areas. With people working in networks and reasonable funding, infrastructure and the exchange of information are improving,” he adds.

030-035_INCTs_175-02According to Glaucius Oliva, a professor from the Institute of Physics from USP’s São Carlos campus, and coordinator of the INCT of Structural Biotechnology and Medicinal Chemistry in Infectious Diseases (INBEQMeDI), the institutes are already fulfilling an important role and bringing together Brazilian researchers and partners from other countries. Oliva, who since February has been in charge of Engineering and Exact, Human and Social Sciences at the CNPq, says that the institutes are a good platform for cooperation agreements. “We are receiving institutions and agencies from various countries, like Germany, France, the Netherlands, Canada and Spain, which are in search of cooperation agreements. The INCTs are a port of entry for international collaboration, which not only foster the integration of researchers but help create critical mass, provide visibility for our research and open up channels for raising funds”, he states. A cooperation tender with Switzerland in areas like neurosciences, health, energy and the environment included partnerships between 10 INCTs and Swiss institutions, for a total recommended amount of 2.7 million.

The INBEQMeDI‘s mission is to carry out structural and biological studies on specific molecular targets of micro-organisms associated with infectious diseases, particularly neglected tropical diseases. “Our target is to develop new drugs for treating endemic diseases, like leishmaniosis, schistosomiasis, Chagas disease, malaria and leptospirosis”, say the professor. He emphasizes that the model of the INCTs is clearly inspired by the success of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (Cepid), created by FAPESP in 2000; one of them, the Structural Molecular Biotechnology Center, is headed up by Oliva himself and has been dedicating itself to innovative projects in structural biotechnology and medicinal chemistry. “The Millennium Institutes, predecessors of the INCTs, had already been inspired by the Cepids. They also looked to form networks, but they were fragmented and had less focus,” says Oliva. “The INCT Program was similar to the FAPESP program of Thematic Projects and because of this the Foundation used this modality for participating in partnership with the CNPq“, said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, from FAPESP.

According to Oliva it was already possible to detect an increase in scientific production between network members. Last year they published 86 articles in indexed journals, 5 more than in 2008 and 19 more than in 2007. In the case of the INCT that is coordinated by Oliva, the group’s emphasis is on obtaining new technologies and improving human resources. “This is because we had already invested heavily in equipment, due to 10 years of activity of FAPESP’s Cepid,” he says. Seven groups from USP are participating in the network, in addition to researchers from the Federal University of Sao Carlos, the Federal University of Viçosa and the State University of Ponta Grossa.

The impact of the INCTs on scientific production assumes particular configurations in each group. The Analytical Techniques Applied to Oil and Gas INCT, for example, is allowing for the formation of a network of researchers that had already existed on paper for some time, but that had never managed to actually to become established. Coordinated by Columbo Celso Gaeta Tassinari, a professor from the Institute of Geosciences at USP, the institute’s mission is to develop analysis techniques of the isotopic composition of minerals and rocks, to help in exploratory risk analysis and with studies of oil and gas reservoirs. “The goal is to build significant and highly qualified critical mass to sustain the next few decades of activities related to the exploratory studies of oil and gas reservoirs,” says Tassinari. Apart from FAPESP and the CNPq, the institute also has funding from Petrobras, which is very interested in its research.

030-035_INCTs_175-03In Brazil there are four major laboratories engaged in this type of research; USP, the University of Brasilia and the Federal Universities of Pará and Rio Grande do Sul.” The network with these institutions was created in 2004, but has not become effective. The laboratories were talking among themselves, but continued working according to their own interests, without coordination and with an overlapping of research,” says Tassinari. The joint purchase of inputs, the exchange of parts for large equipment and periodic meetings led to the beginning of the collaboration. One of the main goals of the institute is to bring new analytical techniques to Brazil, through the training of researchers abroad. “The equipment park is satisfactory, because we were strongly supported both by FAPESP and by Petrobras and Finep helped our partners,” he says. “Just the fact that we have formed a network has already made it possible to raise funds more easily. We have not changed the lines of work, but network collaboration has enabled us to participate in a tender from Finep for isotopic geology laboratories, which benefited groups such as the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the Federal Universities of Bahia, Sergipe and Mato Grosso. Without the network, this public tender would not have succeeded,” Tassinari contends.

At the Obesity and Diabetes INCT, the impact on scientific production will largely result in the purchase of a major piece of equipment for US$ 950,000, a mass spectrometer, a machine that can identify the different atoms that go to make up a substance; the equipment will be installed in the Faculty of Medical Sciences (FCM), at Unicamp. “This equipment will allow us to analyze the metabolism of obese and diabetic people as has never been done before, not only in Brazil but also abroad,” says Mario Saad, a professor at Unicamp and coordinator of the institute. “It will be an extremely important upgrade in terms of analytical chemistry in my laboratory,” says Anibal Vercesi, a professor in the Department of Clinical Pathology, of the FCM, which belongs to the institute’s network. According to Vercesi, in the United States researchers commission such studies as these from companies and receive the result in a short time. “My plan is to propose a new thematic project for analyzing the properties of the proteome of the mitochondria of transgenic animals,” says Vercesi, who intends, as a result, to look for a post-doctoral student who is trained in the area to carry out the proteomic analysis. But even before the arrival of the equipment the group has already observed a positive influence on production. According to the professor, a trend towards publishing articles in major impact journals has already been seen as a result of the intensification of the research being done in the network. A recent example is a cover article in the journal, PLoS Biology, written by José Barreto Campello Carvalheira, who discovered the benefits generated by physical exercise in the control of food intake.

The Stem Cells in Human Genetic Diseases INCT, coordinated by a professor from USP, Mayana Zatz, with researchers from five states, is seeking to associate genomic studies with stem cell research in Brazil. One of the goals is to create a bank of stem cells that contains samples derived from a wide variety of individuals with genetic diseases for the development of research projects and for finding new treatments. The institute also derives from a FAPESP Cepid, the Center for Human Genome Studies, led by Mayana. “The great advance in our group came with the Cepid. Now, with the INCT, in addition to research aimed at cell therapy with stem cells, we want to do a something new, which is to associate genomic studies and stem cell research in Brazil,” says Mayana. Among its objectives, the institute, by using stem cells from affected patients, is looking to create cell strains that enable different strategies for gene therapy and pharmacological agents to be developed in order to correct specific genetic defects. Within the scope of the institute there is a project, “80 +”, that is going to collect DNA samples from a thousand people over 80 years old, who will undergo an MRI scan of the brain to look for genetic markers linked to healthy aging. “In the future, these genomes will be used to understand the significance of the mutations found in younger people, i.e. whether or not they cause disease. Today, it is possible to carry out the genetic sequencing of a person for about US$ 1000, but we will have much more information than knowledge. We want to know the meaning. If a mutation is prevalent in healthy older adults, we’ll know that it causes no harm,” says Mayana. With funds from Finep, a new building is going to double the space for research at the Center for Human Genome Studies.

030-035_INCTs_175-03In the case of the Climate Change INCT, coordinated by Carlos Nobre from the National Space Research Institute, the investment is leading to encouragement for the formation of a wide network of 250 researchers, spread throughout 70 Brazilian and 10 international institutions. It is also being used to sponsor studies that go beyond the traditional climate research to address issues such as adaptation to climate change, the mitigation of its effects, and to make progress towards determining the causes of global warming. “Observing climate change does not give us the right to state that all causes are anthropogenic. We have very significant vegetation changes that are leading to changes of a regional nature. To understand this, it is important that we carry out research that is interdisciplinary, involving not only climatologists, but also agronomists, biologists and social scientists,” says Nobre. He says that the scope of the INCT is similar to many other initiative, like the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (PFPMCG) and the federal government’s Climate Network. “Essentially, the institute is helping increase investment in research into climate change, which are still little. The INCT is currently responsible for 40% of the funds for research into climate change,” says Nobre, who also coordinates the FAPESP program.

The goal of the Semiochemicals in Agriculture INCT, coordinated by José Roberto Postali Parra, a professor at the USP’s Luiz de Queiroz Superior School of Agriculture (ESALQ), is to reduce or substitute the use of agrochemicals in agriculture, by developing technological bases for identifying, synthesizing and using semiochemicals in Brazilian agriculture. Semiochemicals are substances used in the communication between living beings in nature, in this case insects and plants. “Our objective is to build critical mass to reduce our foreign dependence in this area. Today, the identification and synthesis of these chemical products are done abroad. We have to send pheromones to be synthesized in Japan or the United States,” he says. Besides Esalq, which coordinates the institute, there are participants from the federal universities of Paraná, Viçosa and Alagoas. “We are putting entomologists and chemists to work together and we want to attract foreign researchers to do post-doctoral studies in Brazil and help us develop this expertise,” says José Mauricio Simões Bento, a professor at ESALQ-USP and sub-coordinator of the institute.

The experience of the first public tender of the INCTs suggests some course corrections are needed for the next initiatives, according to the coordinators of the institutes. Carlos Aragão, the president of the CNPq, says that one of the challenges is to ensure that network management is done efficiently. “We must ensure that networking, which is the modern way of doing research, is generating benefits,” he says. He says that some groups have reported difficulties and there are coordinators working on a suggestion letter that will indicate the obstacles and ways of overcoming them. Climatologist Carlos Nobre says it is necessary to establish the figure of the resource manager, because the funding of the institutes is high and its administration overloads the routine work of the coordinators. “It’s one thing to manage a project of R$100,000, quite another to take care of R$ 7.2 million over three years. And the money goes into an account that has my tax number,” says Nobre. “As there is no hypothesis other than handling the money with very strict ethical standards, I end up dedicating a lot of my time to looking after it,” he adds. Another complaint concerns the late regulation relating the use of funds. The groups had already agreed a split of funds among network members when a rule was published stipulating that the resources of FAPs could only be used in groups from the respective states – fund mobility would only be possible with federal money. “We had to rearrange things, which caused some frustration with groups from other states,” says Colombo Tassinari.