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Cylon Gonçalves: Physicist, politician, executive

Physicist Cylon Gonçalves talks about his experience at university, in government and in private enterprise, and about the difficulties in producing innovation

MIGUEL BOYAYANA polyfaceted personage in the last few years in the country’s scientific and technological circles, Cylon Gonçalves da Silva has today a baggage of  knowledge and experience that few have. He has been through the academic world, working directly with private enterprise. At the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), he was a professor of the Physics Institute, where he entered in 1974 and was given the title of professor emeritus in 2001. In 1986, he took on the coordination of the implantation of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), inaugurated 1997, in Campinas. Until 2001, he was a director of the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Technology Association (ABTluS), which maintains the laboratory for all the Brazilian researchers that are studying the atomic structures of materials by means of high intensity electromagnetic radiation.

In 2000, Cylon was one of the coordinators of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Conference, held in the following year.  He was responsible for the Green Paper, launched before the event for reflections from the participants about the themes at the conference. Retired from Unicamp, Cylon was a consultant for the Ministry of  Science and Technology (MCT) in the area of nanotechnology, during the Fernando Henrique administration. In the Lula administration, he ran the MCT’s Secretariat for Research and Development Policies and Programs, where he stayed for almost two years. In 2005, at the age of 59, he took up the position of technology director of the Genius Technology Institute, passing, as he himself says, “to the other side of the counter”. His academic life began with his graduation in physics, at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the state in which he was born, in the city of  Ijuí. He took a master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of  California, in Berkeley, and he was a professor of UFRGS for two years, before entering Unicamp. As an academic, he published over 70 scientific articles and books in his specialty, condensed matter physics, studying the electronic and magnetic properties of matter. He was also visiting professor at the University of  Lausanne,  in Switzerland, between 1978 and 1980, and at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, in Australia, between 1999 and 2001. The interview he gave us in his office at Genius, in São Paulo, now follows, in its main moments.

You went through the academic world, you created the LNLS and was its director, afterwards, on two occasions, you went through government, and now you are with Genius, a private research institute. How are you feeling in this new environment?
I like to joke that I am in my fourth incarnation. And each incarnation involves a childbirth. You have to learn new things, understand different institutional cultures. What motivated me to this experience was the fact that, in my three previous incarnations, I was acting basically on the side of the counter that takes care of the generation and the supply of knowledge. And Brazil’s great challenge today is innovation. We know perfectly well how to offer science and technology and which buttons to press for the country to produce more scientific articles and to produce more doctors. But we don’t know which buttons to press to generate innovation. Incidentally, I suspect that we don’t even have adequate institutions for this. There is a lack of  legal landmarks for stimulating innovation, because many of those that there are inadequate for the task that is placed ahead of us. One example is the Brazilian legislation on biodiversity and biotechnology. Just to give one concrete example, the other day I was talking to someone from Embrapa [Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation] who was given the mission of setting up a special purpose company to speed up the transfer of  knowledge from Embrapa to the private sector, in a model for public-private partnership. After one year of work, he hasn’t found out how to do it.

What are the difficulties?
Embrapa today, like a good deal of our public Research & Development (R&D) institutions, is completely immobilized. They have been transformed, by contingencies external to the company, into a large civil service department, in the negative sense of that expression.

And didn’t the Law on Innovation come precisely to fill that gap?
The Law on Innovation and the law on social organizations as well are very weak in relation to the size of the problem. In the Brazilian State, there is a culture that everything that is public is good and everything that is private is bad. So, two or three isolated laws, like these, do not overcome the barriers. They conflict with several other legal landmarks, which is a delight for the bureaucrats who do not want to transform the country and lose their privileges. In the application of the Law on Innovation, that is going to appear more and more clearly. In the case of the social organizations, our hope was for them to be an institutional instrument for making the public R&D sector more agile, and what we observe, over the years, is a progressive immobilization of these organizations.

Would one of the examples of these organizations be the LNLS?
It is one example of the model in which the State hires a private entity. A social organization is very specific. From the legal point of view, it’s like Genius, a non-profit private law civil association. But it goes one step further, it is recognized as a social organization by a decree of the President of the Republic. Following this recognition, it is qualified to make a management contract with the government. The idea is for this contract to establish targets to be met, with a system for evaluating results, and not internal administrative processes. In return, there should be great agility in the use of public funds. What we see in practice is that this agility is constantly questioned by the supervisory bodies. This is not merely an effect of a left-wing retrograde view of the State, but it lies in the essence of bureaucratic logic, whatever the government is. The exceptions that exist within the machine of the State have lost, in the Lula government, the capacity to face up to this question, and that includes for the resistance of the Office of the Presidential Chief of Staff.

The demands are not the way they ought to be, is that it?
No. They are subtle things, for those who do not know the public sector in detail, and extremely important things. For example: the Federal Government budget is divided into two large blocks, one for investments and one for defrayals. The social organizations are financed with budgetary funds from the block for defrayals. Then an auditor from the Federal Audit Court says: “No, a social organization cannot use these funds for making investments.”  So, the law may be excellent, but the way how the State behaves in relation to these institutional innovations is the old way.

And what is missing for us to advance on the path of innovation?
The problem is how to transform knowledge into wealth, or what we call innovation. Innovation isn’t a simple thing, it’s a complex set of actions and results.

But always aiming at a product?
Aiming at putting something onto the market. If it isn’t on the market, it isn’t an innovation, it isn’t generating wealth. I think that the simplest test is that. If it doesn’t generate wealth, taking a new product to the market, a new service, the objective of the innovation has not been attained.

And, from the side of the companies, the steps are still not right, correct?
They aren’t. But the private sector does not exist in a vacuum, it exists within a State. And the institutional landmarks of this State delimit the possibilities of the private sector. I once asked a businessman, when I was still on the other side of the counter: why do companies develop so little technology in the country?  The answer was the following: “Technology involves risk, a highly qualified, very expensive workforce, the charges are enormous. So, I prefer to buy abroad something that is already ready and tested, where my risk decreases, to maintaining an expensive R&D department, where the risk is high.”

This problem can’t be alleviated by institutions like Genius and other independent institutes?
There we come back to the first question. Why was I interested in this challenge? To make innovation take off, we have to have R&D from the side of the private sector. And therein lies the attraction of Genius. Because that is precisely what Genius and other similar institutions propose to do: to make the process of transferring knowledge from the laboratory to the shelves of the stores agile.

And what are these other similar institutions?
There are the Cesar [Center for Advanced Studies and Systems of Recife] and so many others. In Manaus, there are the institutes of Samsung and Nokia, besides the Paulo Feitoza Foundation and Fucapi [Center for Technological Analysis, Research and Innovation Foundation], and others maintained with funds from the Law on Information Technology.

Does the Genius institute work from requests from companies, or do you carry out research here or bring it from the university?
Genius has various modalities of operation. The first modality is the solution of problems posed by the companies. They have a problem and their own resources for solving it, and they need a quick solution. For example, in Manaus, the institute does a lot of work in the area of cellular telephony, developing software. In this case, the objective is simple: the company launches a new model every six months, and the consumer needs, for example, to transfer the list of telephone numbers from the old phone to the new one. Our work is to develop a series of software to act as an interface between the telephone and the computer.

MIGUEL BOYAYANGenius has remained with its image linked to Gradiente (the company that created it under the Law on Information Technology). Today, does it provide a service to Gradiente as well?
We have a set of corporate customers, and one of these customers is Gradiente. Sometimes there’s a problem with a product from Gradiente’s line, which needs to be solved rapidly, it comes here, the people resolve it, the company paid, end of the story. The second modality that, in a certain sense, in the long term brings more benefits to Genius is when a company wants to develop something new, but the technological risk is too high for it. Then the company joins up with a research institute, for example, Genius, and together they do the project and take it to a financing body like Finep [Financier of Studies and Projects]. What is the advantage for the company? It is going in with a consideration in the project, but the rest of the funds means a zero cost for it. With this, the investment that it does, with a risk, falls. Normally, they are long-term projects, of one or two years.

Long term here is one or two years?
Yes. The others I was talking about take three months. When they don’t take three weeks, to solve an urgent problem. So, why are the long-term projects more interesting for Genius?  Because, while in the first modality, if some intellectual property is developed, it remains completely with the company, which paid 100% of the project, in the second, the intellectual property is negotiated as tripartite: Finep, Genius, company. And there, there’s a possibility of Genius little by little constructing an intellectual property portfolio. But there is a third modality of acting, which is research itself. And here the institute’s forte is automatic voice recognition. We are investing, looking for public resources, because Genius itself does not generate profits. It depends, to carry out its researches, like any other institute, on public funding. And today, after some years of investments, this technology is now mature for going onto the market. But how to take it to the market from an institute like Genius? At bottom, it’s no different from any other research institute. It goes from licensing this technology for partners who are in the market, adapting it to the needs of these partners, to – one thing that we are considering today – creating a company to take this technology directly to the market.

You talked of the need for rapidity for a product to arrive on the market. But there are examples that took time, like the flex fuel system. Bosch, in Brazil, already had this system in 1996, in tests with the manufacturers. Why do some products take so long to arrive on the market?
That is why people make a distinction between technological risk and commercial risk. The first is that when we do not know whether the product is going to work from the technological point of view. With commercial risk, the product may be excellent from the technological point of view and not sell. History is full of examples. As a tool of work, the Macintosh is much better that a Windows PC. But who dominates the market? Windows PC.

Because it’s cheaper?
Because its commercial strategy was completely different. The Mac’s technology is much better than the technology of the Windows PC, but the commercial strategy was wrong. Or it was right; it depends on the point of view. This worse product conquered the market. Let’s remember that when the videocassette began, there were at least two products: VHS and Betamax. On the technical side, Betamax was superior, but it didn’t survive.

Even belonging to a large company, Sony, it didn’t catch on.
It didn’t catch on because of price or of the company’s strategy. Sony isn’t just any little company. So, I ask, why did iPod catch on and so many other similar products not have this success? In actual fact, no one knows why a product works in the market.

And flex fuel?
In this case, you can understand. Brazil went through a problem of shortage of ethanol. Nobody wanted ethanol-driven cars. Flex fuel would make it possible to solve this problem, as it makes it possible today. But oil and gasoline were cheap. It wasn’t worthwhile running the commercial risk. The technological risk was under control, the product was resolved. But working it out on paper, to launch this product onto the market, it was going to cost a lot to do all the final engineering of industrial processing. More recently, there came the oil crisis, gasoline went up in price, ethanol came down, and flex fuel became attractive for the market.

Just advanced technology isn’t enough, there has to be a commercial situation?
That’s the problem of working on the other side of the counter. You have a genial product that nobody wants to buy.

You were secretary for Research and Development Policies and Programs at the MCT. How did you find yourself in this position and how did you perceive Brazil from the point of view of the conditions of scientific research and even of innovation?
With regard to R&D, it was more in the academic sense. It was a very interesting experience, because the major part of the areas of activity are about which I knew very little before, because in this secretariat the main areas are biotechnology, biodiversity, climatic changes, meteorology, resources from the sea. Nanotechnology, for example, as a nanometric fraction of my duties.

At that moment, you said that Brazil had the conditions for becoming a world leader in biotechnology.
Certainly. I think that, once again, Brazil baulks at the institutional question.

In what sense?
One think that we have still not learnt in Brazil is that the institutions have to be as well designed as a bridge. Institutions are abstract things, and when I talk of them I am not referring to organizations. The institutions of democracy, for example, are the three Powers: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. These institutions are abstract entities of a democratic regime, and they are materialized in practice by means of certain organizations. For example: the Legislation Branch is materialized in an organization called National Congress. Institutions are like an engineering project for a bridge. The organizations are the bridge built and the materialization of this bridge. So, when a project is bad, however good the engineer is, however good the materials are, the bridge is not going to stand up. But if the project is good, it can have errors in it being carried out. The engineer may be no good, instead of cement, sand is used, the bridge falls, but the institution, the project is correct. The problem is to mend the carrying out of the project. In democracy, the Legislative Branch is correct. Implementation proves problematic at times, but not even for that is the project eliminated.

What do we need then?
For things to work in this country, we need to make well-designed institutions. The biotechnology area, for example, is insane. It is headed up by the CTNBio [National Technical Commission for Biotechnology]. It intends to be, simultaneously, a normative, executive, supervisory and consultant body, all at the same time. It can’t work! However good the people are that are on the commission, the bridge is going to fall down. The project is wrong.

I would like to talk about a theme that you like a lot: nanotechnology. How did your interest begin?
My interest in nanotechnology began in 2001, when we were preparing the Green Paper and organizing the National Science and Technology Conference. Professor Celso de Melo, from the Federal University of Pernambuco, was a director of the CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], looked me up and said: “The CNPq should issue a notice for networks in the nanotechnology area.”  Then I said to him: “Great. Send me something in writing about that and I’ll fit it into the Green Paper.”

Did your work at the LNLS and your academic work also have an influence?
All this had to do nanotechnology. But, ten years ago, that wasn’t on the way. It wasn’t called nanotechnology. But in the initial documents of the LNLS we wanted to build a laboratory that would have available instruments capable of studying matter at the atomic level on a nanometric scale. That is why it was so easy to develop nanotechnology in Brazil. Because over the years the country has invested in laboratories capable of doing nanotechnology and nanoscience, without using this term. FAPESP invested heavily, the CNPq and Finep as well. But what called the world’s attention to nanotechnology was the American program, launched by the Clinton government in 2000.

And how has it evolved in Brazil now?
Look, I think that, from the point of view of research, it’s doing well. From the point of view of innovation, it could do far better.

Is more involvement of companies lacking?
Yes. There are some small companies being created, a few big ones are beginning to be interested by the subject, above all the petrochemical area, like Petrobras, for example, and private groups as well, like Oxiteno and Brasken.

About the conference: you were invited to do the Green Paper, you talked with lots of people in this country. What happened after that conference that is reflected now, particularly in innovation?
When Professor Carlos Pacheco went to the MCT (as executive secretary), on a certain occasion, he said that the ministry was interested in doing planning for science and technology in Brazil, and cited as an example previous plannings, such as the PNDs [National Development Plans] that were done in the 1970s, 1980s. I answered that this model was no longer adequate for the country, which had advanced a lot, and there was no point in doing a planning as in past times. I told him: “We have to create a discussion process that perpetuates itself.”  From then on, I tried to imagine what we could do in this regard. There were several planning efforts under way in the ministry. One of the things that I proposed is that we should do a Green Paper, we should mobilize people for discussion.

And innovation?
With regard to innovation, as far as I know, it was the first time that the MCT has taken up so strongly the commitment to it, because it was the conference for science, technology and innovation. But I felt quite strongly, in those days, that a policy of State that really incorporated this question of innovation was missing. And I think that this step was taken in the Lula government, with the launch of the industrial, technological and foreign trade policy. However incipient it may be, however many problems that is has for becoming completely viable, the important thing was the fact that the government went so far as to say: “We need to have an industrial, technological and foreign trade policy.”  I think that this was the step that was missing in 2001. In that year, the question of innovation was raised. In 2002, important instruments were created, like the sectorial funds, the Center for Strategic Management and Studies [CGEE], but there was no tie up with the industrial question and with foreign trade. That step has been taken now.

Going back to nanotechnology. You also have a philosophical approach to it. How is that?
I continue to be convinced that nanotechnology is a practical recognition that the world is made of atoms. And that is a very recent thing in our culture. The Greeks were already talking about atoms 2,500 years ago, and this notion of the atom was taken up again, from the scientific point of view, at the end of the 18th century, and reinforced by the chemists over the 19th century, and ended up embraced with full force by the physicists and the biologists, with the study of DNA, in the 20th century.  But the idea that everything that exists is made from small invisible, extremely numerous particles, which obey the laws of nature, and we know what these laws are, puts us in a process of more and more discovering new things, about what the consequences are of these laws and understanding how the human being itself is constituted from these nanoscopic structures. That could have an enormous impact on human culture. How long is this going to take, if it is going to happen? I don’t know.

Another aspect of nanotechnology is the environmental aspect.
In September this year I was at a meeting in Paris, summoned by the United Nations’ environment program. Once a year, they publish a sort of  “The State of the World”, and in this book they like to put a chapter about the emerging challenges. In the 2006 book, this challenge is nanotechnology. But what became clear there is the following: the future environmental impact of nanotechnology is not known. The researches are still very incipient. There are some results, but the methodologies are questionable.

What are the main problems?
One of the problems is elementary: monitoring. There are no instruments disseminated for you to monitor nanoparticles in the environment. These instruments today are confined to research laboratories. Nanoparticles exist in nature. They have been with us since the first volcano burst open and the first fire was lit. One of the present-day challenges is to learn how to monitor them. There is also concern with the artificial or industrially produced nanoparticles. We believe that they are good for medicine, for example. Because there is the possibility of directing them to a specific organ and of making them carry a drug and deliver this drug in the right place, at the right time and in the right quantity. But this presupposes that they can go to any place in the body and accumulate in any organ. All very well when you do this intentionally. But what about when it is without the intention of doing so. What can the consequences be? We do not know. But we also have to relativize this. The risk today is zero. One suggestion would be, in a not very remote future, is to bring the environmental bodies close to the research centers where the knowledge abut nanotechnology is for them to learn about nanoparticles, including how to use these instruments.

What were the motivations for the creation of the LNLS?
There were two main motivations: one very clear at the time, the will to endow the country with an instrument that stimulated experimental research in the country. I, as a theoretical physicist, know how important experimental research is. The idea of designing and constructing in the country a large-sized scientific instrument and putting it into operation was really a challenge too handsome to resist. And the second thing, my great concern with the institutional question. I saw the Synchrotron as a new model for doing science in the country. A laboratory too big to have an owner.

You proposed a national institute for nanotechnology, but the idea was contested by researchers opposed to the proposal for concentrating investments in just one institute. How was that?
There is a difference of vision. Brazil operates a lot in one manner: either it is one thing, or it is another. Either we have everything spread out, or we have everything concentrated. The idea of a system that at the same time has a comprehensive component and brings together in one place a large concentration of  instruments and of people capable of  leverage for quicker growth of an area doesn’t enter into the head of the Brazilian community. If we look at other countries, more advanced, it is like that. There is an institutional ecology of the R&D sector, which goes from scattered, well-equipped university laboratories, functioning adequately, to large centers where the researches are concentrated. Concentration, however much the Internet makes it possible to work at a distance, is benefic. The economists call this benefit growing gains with scale. Above a certain threshold, you really accelerate development.

Why did it not happen?
To date, there have not been the political conditions. When I was in the ministry, I tried to implement this policy. The program we put together was comprehensive and even included a notice from the CNPq for scholarship and research grants for young doctors, with at the most five years since being awarded their doctorates, to avoid competition with researchers with 20 years in the career. The ministry would set four or five problems for solution and would identify the best groups on the theme. We need to have a financing focus. And not just diffuse financing, a little bit for everybody.