Imprimir Republish

History of FAPESP II

New paradigms

The Bioq-FAPESP Program boosted biochemistry in the 1970s and inspired policies to promote research

reproductions of the book pesquisa & desenvolvimento - FAPESP (research and development – FAPESP)Created during a consolidation phase of FAPESP, and not yet 10 years in action, the Program for the Development of Biochemistry (Bioq-FAPESP) innovated in the 1970’s when choosing a globally emerging area of research – in which, however, the state of São Paulo had a restricted influence – to invest in the training of new groups of researchers, ensuring financial support for projects and setting up laboratories. The fruits born of this scientific program are various. The research group of Carl Peter von Dietrich (1936-2005), for example, determined the structure of heparin, composed of a sequence of linked sugars. Based on this finding, Dietrich, who was a professor at the São Paulo School of Medicine (EPM), was able to design low molecular weight heparins that are also able to act as anticoagulants. Today, worldwide sales of heparin have reached $6 billion.

The group of Walter Colli, at the Institute of Chemistry in the University of São Paulo (IQ-USP), showed that the surface of Trypanosoma cruzi, the protozoan that causes Chagas disease, is replete with sugars. Pursuing this finding even further, doctoral student Maria Júlia Manso Alves discovered a new molecule composed of sugars and lipids, and was able to determine part of its structure. The Scottish researcher, Michael Ferguson, repeated her work and told Maria Júlia that the protein anchors, whose structure he was beginning to study, had very similar properties to the molecule described by the Brazilian research group, which facilitated their identification. These anchors are glycolipid structures that attach the protein to the membrane. A few examples of the several lines of research that have expanded, and also stand out, is the synthesis of peptides, led by Antonio Cechelli de Mattos Paiva (1929-2006), also from EPM, the molecular biology research led by Professor Francisco Jeronymo Salles Lara (1925-2004), the work on photochemistry in the dark captained by Giuseppe Cilento (1924-1994), and studies on DNA repair under the command of Rogério Meneghini, the last three figures being from USP.

Launched in 1971, the program also functioned like a laboratory of experiments that left a mark on the environment of universities and would inspire new strategies to stimulate research by FAPESP. “It was necessary to show merit in order to be selected, but researchers that demonstrated competence were rewarded with great intellectual freedom and prestige, though several were still very young,” says Hernan Chaimovich, a currently retired professor from IQ-USP and one of program coordinators. FAPESP-Bioq was the first in a series of special projects approved by the Foundation from 1970 to 1988, which invested $1 million in its first three years alone – an amount that, at the time, had a purchasing power equivalent to $5.5 million today.

The rigorous implementation of the program was backed by an external committee charged with making a permanent and independent audit of the project, consisting of Professors Philip Pacy Cohen (1908-1993) and Gerald Mueller (1920-2010), of the University of Wisconsin, Leonard Bernard Horecki (1914-2010), of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Marshall Warren Nirenberg (1927-2010), from the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1968 for having interpreted the triads of nucleotides in messenger RNA that code for amino acids.

N. MacVicar / National Institutes of HealthNirenberg, Nobel Laureate in 1968: selection by meritN. MacVicar / National Institutes of Health

“We had to present the project in English to be sent to reviewers in the United States. Then they came and interviewed us. It was hard,”says Walter Colli, one of the program awardees. The committee considered the merit of the projects and of the researchers themselves in order to make their selection of participants, regardless of the age or professional position of the candidate. “That approach was an affront to the structure of universities in the 1960’s,” said Hernan Chaimovich. “Once, a high-ranking professor had their project rejected by the committee. But I, who was a foreigner, had not yet completed my doctorate and had a temporary contract at USP, was selected and participated in the coordination committee,”he says.

A key figure in the creation of the program was Professor Francisco Lara, from the Department of Biochemistry in the then newly formed Institute of Chemistry at USP. The idea for the program first came up in 1969 during a discussion on the need to invest in infrastructure for research in biochemistry between Lara and physicist Oscar Sala (1922-2010), the Scientific Director of FAPESP at that time. Lara had acquired a new piece of equipment, an analytical centrifuge, and was willing to share it with other research groups in the country – there had already been one such device in São Paulo, but Lara could not get permission to use it. As the Scientific Director of FAPESP, Sala had been authorized by the Board to invest in special projects, so he proposed a bolder approach. From this situation arose the scope of a large program, with the capacity to take biochemistry research to a whole new level. “Reportedly, Professor Lara, in proposing the project, said that as the United States had sent a man to the moon, Brazil would send a man to Sweden, referring to the program’s potential to generate a Nobel Prize recipient in Brazil,” says Rogério Meneghini, a retired professor from IQ-USP who also had a research project supported by the program. In 1970, biochemists from USP and EPM, currently the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), stimulated by Sala, formulated a plan for the Development of Biochemistry in the city of São Paulo. The plan was written by a committee composed of Professors Lara, Chaimovich, and Colli, Metry Bacila from USP, and Carl Dietrich and Antionio Cechelli de Mattos Paiva of EPM. As the Foundation had no prior experience with a program of that size, it opted for a more restricted approach. FAPESP-Bioq was expected to last three years and limited its scope to facilitating the work of research groups in the city of São Paulo – which, naturally, offended researchers from other institutions in the state. “But the most articulate groups were concentrated in the city of São Paulo and it was feared that the project would fail if its scope was expanded too much,” says Walter Colli. The administration of the program was delegated to a five member committee, elected by participants in the project, and leaving it to choose its own coordinator and vice-coordinator, who were Professors Cechelli Paiva and Carl Dietrich. The advising and monitoring of projects was the responsiblity of the same international committee, that had evaluated the proposed design and recommended approval of the program at the earliest stages of its organization. Professor Carlos Ribeiro Diniz (1919-2002), of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, served as a special adviser to the Scientific Director of FAPESP – which opted for a colleague from outside of São Paulo, to prevent having a researcher with direct interests in benefitting from the program from also participating in the evaluation of proposals.

According to an article on Bioq-FAPESP written in 2000 by Walter Colli, the program began in 1971 with 14 scientific research projects, and over the next three years, 11 additional projects were included. By 1974, when the first comprehensive report was presented, 21 research groups had been formed. In the following years, the few new projects added to the program came from researchers already in the project network who had moved on to conducting research independent of their original group of collaborators. By 1978, 34 different projects had been developed from these research groups with funds from the program, as well as nine other projects of common interest to several groups and which resulted in the establishment of laboratories for peptide synthesis and spectropolarimetry. 20 scientists from abroad were also invited to work in Brazil as visiting professors, to teach advanced courses in their areas of expertise and integrate their skills with the various research groups being supported by the program.

The program supported 29 researchers from São Paulo to present papers or realize short visits to laboratories abroad. In the period from 1970 to 1978, 65 graduate students linked Bioq-FAPESP received their doctorates and 43 recieved their masters degrees. Among those students are several figures that have become leaders in their fields of inquiry, such as Helen Nader, President of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, Jorge Guimarães, President of the Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), and Eloi Garcia, former President of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. “The intense and continuous activity during this period resulted in 394 scientific papers published in periodicals indexed in the international literature, and numerous lectures at congresses and conferences in Brazil and abroad. This is the number of publications generated during the period under consideration, but it’s certainly more if we make a projection into the immediate future, of the effects of the project,” says Colli.

Family collection of Oscar SalaOscar Sala: gambled on an emerging areaFamily collection of Oscar Sala

According to Hernan Chaimovich, the impact of the program in the field of biochemistry was remarkable. “If we compare productivity in the area of biochemistry in 1960 and 1980 – and compare this evolution with any other area, we see that biochemistry shot way ahead. There was a great deal consolidation in the lines of thinking in several areas of biochemistry happening at the same time as the field of molecular biology was being founded. Ten years after the program started, at least 10 previously independent research groups had been consolidated, forming teams and creating pressure for more resources,” he says. Rogério Meneghini, who joined the program in 1974 upon returning from postdoctoral studies in the United States, said that he was surprised to find all of the equipment that had previously been requested, already available. “They were there waiting for me, which was not something trivial to someone of my experience and age. Several chemists from my generation only managed to develop such an infrastructure much later in their careers,”says Meneghini, whose project involved research on DNA repair mechanisms.

Bioq-FAPESP began to lose some steam around1976 and was ended in 1978. After that, however, many of the research groups involved in the program were able to continue their work by obtaining support from FAPESP for individual projects. “It was never clear why the program ended,” says Hugo Armelin, a retired professor from the Department of Biochemistry at IQ-USP. He notes that there were disputes over investing in particular fields of inquiry at the expense of others, at a time when the resources of the Foundation were limited. It also caused some difficulties to develop in the system of project evaluation and granting of resources, which diverged from the approach normally adopted by FAPESP, in terms of consultancy and the use of funds. Instead of harboring secret opinions, the merits of proposals were openly evaluated by national and international committees, whose members were known. Instead of distributing resources to individual projects in all areas, special favor was given to a specific area. Although aid was granted directly to the researchers, the system also accounted for the rational distribution of support to participating institutions with regard to programs of general interest and large equipment. “In this sense, although the granting of support to individuals was maintained, the Bioq-FAPESP project had a partially institutional character about it,” says Walter Colli. According to Hugo Armelin, who joined the program in 1974 after doing postdoctoral studies at the University of California, San Diego, this was rooted in the belief that the Foundation should promote the demands for research funding, in keeping with the merits of proposals, but not interfere too much with the institutions trying to organize these areas of research. Other special programs that had been approved, took a very different approach, by seeking to solve specific research problems.

With an increase in funding directed to the Foundation’s coffers, as a result of changes to the 1989 state constitution and the end of inflation, FAPESP grew to have an improved capacity for investing in ambitious projects and was inspired by the experiences of Bioq-FAPESP, observes Hugo Armelin. “Even thematic projects, linking various research groups over a period of up to five years, have a lot of the rationality of Bioq” he says. “I can say that because members of Bioq, like myself and Meneghini, participated in the formulation of a thematic program,” he says. Oscar Sala, elevated to the presidency of the Board/High Council between 1985 and 1995, also helped to save such experience. The Scientific Directors, Flavio Fava de Moraes and José Fernando Perez surrounded themselves with coordinators who had participated in the Bioq-FAPESP Program, such as Colli, Meneghini and Paiva.

FAPESP now has several special programs designed to induce research in strategic areas, as well as several programs focused on research in the area of technological innovation, that supports research with the potential to develop new technologies or that contribute to the formulation of public policies. In 2009, these two lines of research received 22% of the Foundation’s total grant resources available. Most of the budget, however, remains destined for initiatives that involve training in human resources, awarded as grants (36% of the total) and to the projects of researchers with spontaneous demands (42%).

The Young Researchers in Emerging Centers Program, which provides up to five years of funding to younger leaders in research, even if they are disconnected from the university structure, also drew on the experience of the Bioq-FAPESP Program in its initiative to train new leadership – and was conceived by Meneghini. For Walter Colli, whose own FAPESP Genome Program was itself due to Bioq, because the human resources trained under it in the 1970’s were critical components of the genome program launched in the 1990’s. “I dare say that future historians, by examining these events from a necessary distance, might think that, given the surprising continuity – though slow, given the speed at which science moves – the Genome Project was an original part of the plan implemented Bioq-FAPESP,” wrote Colli in an article published in the year 2000. The strengthening of the Brazilian Society of Biochemistry, which was recreated the same year that Bioq-FAPESP was initiated, also aimed at being a reflection of the program. “The program was ahead of its time and, therefore, the experience it generated took a while to be appreciated,” Armelin said.