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Overcoming barriers

FAPESP Week Beijing brings together researchers from Brazil and China

The Great Wall: researchers from Brazil and China seek to begin collaborations that will reduce the effect of the 20,000 kilometers and the linguistic differences that separate them

Ricardo Zorzetto The Great Wall: researchers from Brazil and China seek to begin collaborations that will reduce the effect of the 20,000 kilometers and the linguistic differences that separate themRicardo Zorzetto

in Beijing

There’s nothing like a good, face-to-face conversation if you want to break down the barriers created by distance and cultural differences that remain even in the Internet age. Some 30 leading researchers from Brazil and China met in the Chinese capital on April 16-18, 2014, to become better acquainted with the latest scientific research being conducted in their respective countries, and to assess the potential for collaborations that would reduce the effect of the nearly 20,000 kilometers and the linguistic differences that separate them. Assembling in one of the conference halls of Peking University (PKU), China’s leading educational and research institution and its highest globally ranked university, the participants attended 28 lectures in fields as diverse as medicine and materials science, took part in official meetings and engaged in informal conversation at breakfasts, lunches and coffee or green-tea breaks. These events marked FAPESP Week Beijing, the seventh international meeting held by the Foundation since 2011 to raise the profile of Brazilian science abroad and stimulate cooperation with groups in other countries. Although brief, this initial contact enabled a number of Brazilian and Chinese researchers to identify affinities and shared interests in the work of their respective groups and to leave the meeting with scientific collaboration in mind. In addition to sowing the seeds of potential partnerships between specific teams, the meeting in Beijing concluded with advanced-stage negotiations on a formal agreement between PKU and FAPESP in support of research in fields of knowledge regarded as strategic for Brazil and China.

Held on the PKU campus in the Haidan district in northwestern Beijing—not far from the Summer Palace, the residence used by emperors beginning in the 18th century to escape the mid-year heat of the Forbidden City—FAPESP Week Beijing sprang from negotiations that began in June 2013, when a FAPESP mission visited China. On the first day of the meeting in Beijing, PKU President Enge Wang, the university’s highest official, met with FAPESP President Celso Lafer, the Foundation’s Vice President Eduardo Krieger and its Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. At the meeting, Wang indicated his intention to sign a cooperative agreement between the two institutions. “Cooperation with China is a top priority, since our two countries are engaged in similar processes in terms of science and technology development,” Lafer said.

The scientific output of China and Brazil—now ranked the world’s second and seventh largest economies, respectively—was rather modest three decades ago. The number of scientific articles published in top-quality international journals totaled only a few hundred per year in the early 1980s. Since that time, scientific output in both countries has grown steadily, and China’s output has grown at a pace the world has never seen. In 2011, researchers based in China published about 150,000 scientific papers—11% of the world’s output—while Brazilians produced some 30,000 (2.6% of global output), according to a study entitled Building Bricks, published by Thomson Reuters in February 2013. These numbers place China’s scientific output second only to that of the United States, a country with one of the world’s most established scientific traditions and the source of nearly one-third of the papers published in journals indexed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science database.

Chinese authorities “recognize that scientific research and higher education are essential to attain global leadership,” wrote researchers Philip Altbach of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, and Qi Wang of China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in a 2012 article published in Scientific American. Since the early 1980s, the number of students in higher education in China has climbed from 860,000 to 23 million, and doctoral program enrollments there have grown from 280,000 to 1.6 million.

R&D spending
Social, economic and political features of each of the two countries may justify the difference in the rate of growth. Brazil has slightly over 100,000 researchers among its 200 million inhabitants. China, with a population six times greater, is home to one million researchers. Spending on research and development (R&D) in both countries has escalated in recent decades. In Brazil, however, R&D expenditure in the past few years has settled at around 1.1% of gross domestic product (GDP), which in 2012 came to $2.2 trillion, while Chinese R&D investment has steadily increased. According to World Bank data, in 2012 China invested nearly 2% of its GDP of $8.3 trillion in science and technology. And that percentage is expected to continue rising.

FAPESP President Celso Lafer and Peking University President Enge Wang intend to sign a cooperative agreement

FAPESP News AgencyFAPESP President Celso Lafer and Peking University President Enge Wang intend to sign a cooperative agreementFAPESP News Agency

In 2006 the central government of the former Middle Kingdom initiated a strategic plan to develop the Medium and Long–term National Plan for Science and Technology Development 2006–2020, which set a national goal of investing 2.5% of GDP in science and technology activities by the end of this decade. “This plan represented a turning point in the development of Chinese science and technology,” explained Zhe Li, deputy director of the Institute of Science and Technology Systems and Management of the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development (CASTED), an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP. The plan calls for both the central and the provincial governments to play a role in achieving the investment target. “Over the past four years the provincial governments have been spending proportionately more money than the central government,” said Yan Li, another researcher at CASTED.

They noted that after the death of Mao Tse-tung in the late 1970s, China began to open its doors to the West and invest in industrial development based on cheap labor. “But we realized that you can’t depend on cheap labor all the time,” Yan Li said. “Investment in science and technology is the engine that drives the economy.”

In addition to boosting spending on research and development, China also implemented a system for evaluating researchers on the basis of their publication of scientific papers in top-quality international journals, similar to what has occurred in Brazil in recent decades. Combined with repatriation of leading researchers trained abroad, this strategy stimulated Chinese scientific output. “The greater the number of publications, the more rapidly one advances in his academic career,” Yan Li explained. At some universities and research institutions, students have to publish papers in order to receive a doctoral degree.

Despite this combination, the quality of Chinese research papers, as measured by the average number citations in other publications (the impact factor), is still below the global average in many disciplines, although it generally ranks higher than that of Brazil. The exceptions are in the fields of mathematics, engineering, materials science, biology, biochemistry and agriculture. The high rate of growth in Chinese output, however, may camouflage a faster impact factor growth than the measurement indicates, according to a study entitled China’s absorptive state – Research, innovation and the prospects for China–UK collaboration, published in October 2013 by Nesta, a foundation based in the United Kingdom that evaluates innovation policies.

Mutual interest
As in Brazil, Chinese scientific output is generated by a small number of institutions, generally concentrated in the eastern part of the Asian country. The most productive institution, Peking University, has an annual research budget of approximately $400 million and, in 2013, published 6,247 papers whose first author was a researcher at the university. “Peking University’s ranking in China is very good because it is a very prestigious university in China and around the world,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP, who during the event presented the strategies for stimulating international cooperation adopted by the Foundation. Notable among these strategies are collaboration with foreign universities and research agencies, and support for young researchers from Brazil and other countries to begin their scientific careers in São Paulo.

“Peking University was clearly interested in doing collaborative research in São Paulo,” said Brito Cruz at the close of FAPESP Week Beijing. “We are finalizing discussion of an agreement under which FAPESP is expected to offer seed funds so that researchers from São Paulo and PKU can arrange the same type of funding for researchers from here,” he explained.

Boya Pagoda, a landmark on the Peking University campus: China’s most productive university has an annual research budget of $400 million

M.L. DUONG / WIKICOMMONSBoya Pagoda, a landmark on the Peking University campus: China’s most productive university has an annual research budget of $400 millionM.L. DUONG / WIKICOMMONS

Seed funds, with a term that can range from a few months to a year, provide only an initial form of assistance, generally aimed at collaboration with foreign universities. The purpose of these funds is to enable researchers from São Paulo and foreign institutions to work together in preparing longer-term projects that are designed, formulated and executed by teams from São Paulo and the partner country. Since it began to invest more heavily in internationalizing science in São Paulo, FAPESP has set up agreements with several foreign universities. In addition to this strategy, it has also signed joint funding agreements with research-sponsoring agencies in at least 10 countries, which have resulted in over 300 projects funded between 2005 and 2010 (see table on page 36). “In São Paulo we have research projects that are very competitive internationally,” Brito Cruz pointed out. “For this reason, the strategy is not based merely on sending students abroad or exchanging researchers, but rather on arranging for researchers to work as equal partners, jointly designing, writing and submitting research proposals.”

In addition to the agreement to offer seed funds, the PKU president committed to efforts to convince the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)—the Chinese agency that supports basic and applied research—to provide funding for the projects involving Chinese and Brazilian researchers funded by FAPESP. In an initial analysis, Brito Cruz called the outcome of this first contact “very good.”

“Prior experiences have shown that an effective way of developing exchanges between researchers is to establish personal contacts,” said Foundation Vice President Eduardo Moacyr Krieger. During the 11 years in which Krieger headed the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, he worked tirelessly to give Brazilian science a stronger presence on the international stage. “The role of institutions is to promote meetings that put researchers into contact, but collaboration is always engendered between individuals,” he pointed out. “Researchers are very mindful of their time and their interests; without reciprocal interest, there is no collaboration.”

Even before formalizing the agreement between FAPESP and PKU, groups from São Paulo and the Chinese university that work in molecular medicine and plant biology had shown an interest in developing joint projects. On the second day of the meeting, cardiologist Rui-Ping Xiao invited physicians Eduardo Moacyr Krieger and José Eduardo Krieger, a father and son who are both with the Heart Institute (InCor) of the University of São Paulo (USP), to become acquainted with the Institute of Molecular Medicine at PKU, of which he is the founding director. Rui-Ping Xiao and his group are investigating the genetic and molecular mechanisms associated with metabolic syndrome, a disorder in the body’s processing of energy that is marked by high levels of sugar (glucose) and lipids in the blood and is linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular problems. They recently identified genetic changes that prevent the muscles from properly utilizing the insulin hormone, which is responsible for transporting glucose—the principal source of cell energy—into muscle cells. These changes lead to insulin resistance, one of the causes of metabolic syndrome.

After spending nearly two decades as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States—one of the world’s leading medical research institutions—Rui-Ping Xiao was invited by the president of PKU to return to his native country in 2005 to design a center for molecular medicine at the Chinese university. Today he coordinates the work of some 200 researchers who conduct tests on rodents, pigs and monkeys. The researchers at the PKU Institute of Molecular Medicine are also beginning to take part in the initial phases of human testing of compounds developed by Rui-Ping Xiao during his NIH years. “José Eduardo Krieger invited me to begin a partnership to study cardiac repair,” said Rui-Ping Xiao after presenting his group’s findings on the final day of the meeting in Beijing. “I would love to do it. He has done studies with pigs, and we have monkeys here. Perhaps we can do something together.”

José Eduardo Krieger confirmed his interest in collaboration after presenting promising data that his team at InCor obtained while using stem cells implanted directly into the heart to assist in cardiac recovery after an infarction. “Here they have an experimental model with minipigs, a breed of pig that doesn’t grow much and therefore reduces the space needed to raise and care for the animals.”

At USP, molecular biology studies are conducted at laboratories in different institutes, such as InCor and the Cancer Institute. But there is no center like the one at Peking University that has all the resources, commented Eduardo Moacyr Krieger. “An institute such as the one at PKU makes it possible not only to transfer knowledge from the laboratory bench to the clinic, but also to innovate— which is still controversial, though people are beginning to think the university should do a little in this area,” he said. By going one step further, universities and public research institutions would complement the role of industry. “The health problem is so complex that government cannot avoid the responsibility of also creating new drugs,” Krieger commented. “Industry has its own logic, while government can make an investment in certain molecules that for some reason are not attractive to the commercial sector.”

Plant biology
Another area that could yield cooperation in the near future is plant biology. During FAPESP Week Beijing, molecular biologist Hongwei Guo of PKU and botanist Marcos Buckeridge of USP showed an interest in joint research. Guo and his team are investigating the molecular mechanisms that regulate the plant hormone ethylene, thus inducing plant development and senescence. Using strategies from genomics and proteomics, they proved in recent years that changes in the light-dark cycle, environmental stressors and infection alter ethylene production. Now Buckeridge is interested in finding out how ethylene can affect the breakdown of cell walls in sugarcane, which is important for the production of so-called second-generation ethanol. Currently, ethanol is produced from the breakdown of cellulose, one of the sugars that form the cell walls of sugarcane. But cellulose accounts for only 30% of these sugars, and increased ethanol production depends on the ability to break down other sugars. At USP, Buckeridge’s group is working to identify how plant hormones, including ethylene, act to break down sugarcane cell walls.

Since Guo’s group is already familiar with the genes associated with ethylene activity, the interaction with the USP team could advance their understanding of how to regulate this phenomenon. Buckeridge surmises that, once this step is understood, it would be possible to try to control the activity of the genes that induce ethylene production and the breakdown of the cell walls in the stalk, which is the major sugar reservoir in sugarcane. “The interaction with Guo’s group has the potential to speed up the transfer of this knowledge,” he said. “We could then use models of faster-growing grains, such as Setaria or Brachipodium, to run a test to prove the concept while we simultaneously work on sugarcane.”