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Partnerships without frontiers

FAPESP Week describes and strengthens the research ties between Brazil and the United States

JVInfante / Wilson CenterMichael van Dusen, Sotero, Vieira, Lafer, Cora Marrett and JaniesJVInfante / Wilson Center

from Washington, D.C.

A meeting of scientists of various nationalities living in Brazil and the United States was the event that marked the celebration of FAPESP’s fiftieth anniversary, which will end in May 2012. In addition to studies on Brazil with a different view from that found in our country – probably due to the objectiveness that results from observation through foreign eyes – American researchers also explained why they seek partnerships with Brazilians: in fields such as bioenergy, tropical medicine and biodiversity, Brazil offers not only objects of study but also  top-quality infrastructure and highly qualified researchers. A total of 45 speakers made it clear that international collaborations have always been – and will increasingly be – crucial for the progress of knowledge. FAPESP Week took place from October 24 to October 26 at Washington D.C.’s Wilson Center, a venue for meetings of scholars from all over the world. The Brazil Institute, founded in 2006 and headed by journalist Paulo Sotero, is part of the Wilson Center.

This was perfect timing for the announcement made by Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. He divulged the creation of a program that will provide funding for foreign researchers, provided that they spend at least 12 weeks a year in Brazil in the course of three to five years, and maintain at least one post-doctoral student in the country as the head of a given project. He also announced a partnership with Embraer and Boeing to open a research center for studies on aviation biofuels. This center is to be established once a feasibility study – expected to take some 9 to 12 months – is concluded.

“ FAPESP was conceived thanks to the pioneering recognition of the importance of research and Brazil’s ability to respond to modernization,” said Celso Lafer, president of the Foundation, at the opening of the event. He emphasized that knowledge has an international scope and characteristic and that collaborations always bring fruitful results for both countries. “Internationalization has always been one of my concerns,” Lafer stated. A former Minister of Foreign Relations, Lafer does not take the credit for FAPESP’s internationalization-related focus: “The internationalization effort was already in place when I became the Foundation’s president. I merely helped encourage it.”

Cora Marrett, adjunct director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), pointed out the longstanding partnership between the São Paulo State agency and the American agency in various areas of science, such as energy, chemistry, and engineering. Specialists from both countries have been meeting consistently to negotiate the guidelines for the dimensions of biodiversity, which will bring Biota-FAPESP closer to a similar initiative by the NSF. “We are going to join the two programs,” said Brito Cruz.

Just like a lively birthday party, the event in Washington was a venue for meetings between Brazilian and foreign researchers, as well as for researchers from different fields who rarely have contact with each other’s research work.

At the session on optics and photonics, Israel’s Michal Lipson, currently at Cornell University, mentioned how surprised she was when she visited the Center for Research on Optics and Photonics (CePOF), at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), and came across optic fibers available for research. This kind of equipment is usually used for communication purposes, far from university laboratories. According to Hugo Fragnito, of Unicamp, who talked about the lines of research at CePOF, Michal is looking for partnerships in Brazil not only because of the equipment but also because of the high quality education – starting with the students. Physicist Paulo Nussensweig, from the University of São Paulo (USP), who lectured at the same session, is packing his bags, on his way to spending one year at Cornell.

A call for partnerships was also the key note of the talk delivered by Reynaldo Victoria, from the University of São Paulo (USP), when he presented the FAPESP program for Research on Global Climate Change, which he coordinates. Brazil is moving forward on various fronts, one of them entailing the preparation of a suitable climate model for the region, thanks to the supercomputer at the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) (see article). INPE director Gilberto Câmara emphasized the need to improve satellite surveillance. “It is necessary to monitor the Amazon Region in real time and raise awareness about the fact that the satellite is monitoring the region,” he said. Current technology allows for the production of much more detailed images, as shown by Robert Green, of the North American Space Agency (NASA). “Now we are talking about remote measuring, which goes beyond remote sensing.” Câmara informed that a joint satellite partnership in the Global Terrestrial Ecosystem Observatory mission is currently being negotiated with NASA. In his opinion, the information generated by this kind of surveillance needs to be fully available for all citizens. This availability is still to be negotiated.

The current negotiations also entail a scientific program, led by Carlos Alfredo Joly, of the Rio+20 Conference, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro next year. Joly, who is coordinator of the Biota FAPESP program, and a researcher at Unicamp, is focusing his efforts not only on research into biodiversity but also on political discussions that aim at preserving biodiversity.

Politics and research issues were also addressed in the discussions on bioenergy. “The growth of the production of biomass fuel can also increase food safety,” said Lee Lynd, from Dartmouth College, who advocates using the imagination to bring fuels and food closer together. In his opinion, the Brazilian example should lead efforts in this respect. FAPESP is a major participant in this effort by means of its Research Program on Bioenergy (Bioen) as stated by the program’s coordinator, Glaucia Souza, from the University of São Paulo (USP). Marie Anne Van Sluys, also from USP, showed how the genome of plants can help to improve sugarcane . Her research has revealed that some duplicate strains of genetic material – namely, transposable elements – are exclusive to sugarcane and might be capable of providing important information for investigation of the complex DNA of this plant, which is a leading component in bioenergy.

The Human Dimension
An unusual meeting between the exact sciences and the humanities, the symposium had room for views about Brazilian politics. These included foreign views as well, as exemplified by the work of Tulia Faletti, from the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the radical and successful (albeit still poorly financed) reform of the public health system, which resulted in the SUS, Brazil’s national health care system; other examples of such views are the conclusions reached by Desposato, from the University of California in San Diego, on racial democracy and corruption; and the study conducted by Elizabeth Stein, from the University of New Orleans, which explores the courageous attitude of the Brazilian press during the repressive military dictatorship.

The talk by Mayana Zatz, from the University of São Paulo (USP), pointed out the importance of different views on fighting diseases through the use of stem cells. Jorge Kalil, director of the Butantan Institute, spoke about this organization’s recent efforts regarding the development of vaccines. Cancer was the subject of Ricardo Brentani, director-president of FAPESP and president of the AC Camargo hospital. “We can no longer treat patients as we did in the past and this is why we invest in research,” he said. Researchers from both countries described the progress made in the understanding of diseases. Walter Colli, from the University of São Paulo (USP), showed how the genes of the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite can be used to fight Chagas’ Disease. There was also room for unusual approaches, such as the study of tuberculosis based on bone alterations in fossils and ancient DNA, by Jane Buikstra, from Arizona State University. It is equally important to highlight the computer models used by Ohio State University’s Daniel Janies to identify how diseases diversify around the world.

This kind of event is not limited to talks. Informal conversations led to new outcomes, as exemplified by the exchange of ideas between physician Marcelo Urbano Ferreira, from the University of São Paulo (USP) and physicist Vanderlei Bagnato, from the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Carlos, on the feasibility of using sunlight to kill the larvae of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria and dengue fever. These are precious opportunities, found in a context in which science is increasingly interdisciplinary and international.