Imprimir Republish

Sergio Re­zende

Sergio Re­zende: Politics with science

An internationally respected scientist heads up the Ministry of Science and Technology, without relinquishing his theoretical work

SERGIO AMARALRezende: “I always worked with a dynamic phenomenon of magnetic materials called spins. Sometimes I produce theories to explain experiments that others are carrying out” SERGIO AMARAL

Minister Sergio Machado Rezende, 68, who has headed up the Ministry of Science and Technology since mid-2005, guarantees that it’s possible to combine the heavy demands of his job in Brasília, with the flights of imagination on which his taste for formulating consistent hypotheses to construct theories in physics invites him to embark. Over the last few months, whether he has been immersed in carrying out and managing the Science, Technology and Innovation Action Plan for National Development, or involved with rearranging the budget, because of a cut of around R$1.3 billion in the original one  planned for his ministry for 2009, and imposed by the international economic crisis, he has continued visiting his small office in the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) at the weekends – there he works a little, for the pleasure of it. In fact, he’s a full professor in the Department of Physics at UFPE.

The possibility of combining his political and administrative work with his scientific activities is far from being a mere force of expression for the minister, to judge by the articles he has written and that have been circulating recently in  respected specialist periodicals. With a biography that contains a total of 214 scientific articles published, 2099 citations and an H 24 index, numbers that place him in a position of prominence among the most recognized Brazilian physicists, in addition to indicating the influence he has when it comes to producing international knowledge in material physics, Sergio Rezende had a new paper published in February this year by the Physical Review B. In July 2008 he was one of the three authors of another article that came out in the same publication and soon he should also figure as a co-author of an article that has already been accepted by the Journal of Applied Physics. It’s worth registering that in the February article, he took a shot at constructing a theory to explain a new experiment that a German research group had done to obtain the Bose-Einstein condensate. Roughly speaking this condensate, which some even call the fifth state of matter, is a situation in which when elementary particles are submitted to extremely low temperatures (below -273ºC) they reach the lowest possible energy level and start behaving in a unified way.

In this interview we suggested that since Pesquisa FAPESP is a publication marked by personalities from the scientific field Sergio Rezende should talk about his academic career before dealing with his work as a minister. The result was that this calm and kind man from Rio de Janeiro, with Pernambucan overtones in the way he expresses himself, ended up showing himself to be someone who knows the science and technology field very well, a field which he plays with consummate ease in three positions: that of scientist, administrator and politician.

I’d like to begin with your contribution to knowledge in physics here in Brazil, since 1967. Starting with the beginning of your career: after studying engineering how did you get involved with theoretical and experimental physics and your interest in magnetism?
I did an undergraduate course in electronic engineering and as a result I became aware of the issue of electromagnetic waves. I was fascinated by the dynamic effect of the waves. When I went abroad to do a Masters degree and a PhD I wanted to do a thesis in engineering, with an emphasis on waves.

And were there any engineers in your family?
No, my father was a lawyer and he always wanted me to be a doctor. We’re three brothers and all three did engineering. One of my sisters did mathematics and the other became a primary school teacher. So in our house there was no influence on me, not even from my father’s profession, nor what he wanted us to do.

And how did engineering affect you – by the way, was it in Rio or Pernambuco?
In Rio. I was born and brought up in Rio de Janeiro. I was an average student in primary school; I studied just enough to pass. But in the first year of the scientific course [one of the modalities of high school at the time] I had a good physics teacher and all of a sudden I started to like studying. Physics involved logic and equations allowed you to construct solutions for certain problems – that was what got to me. From then on I started being a good student in physics, in mathematics and generally. I did very well in the university entrance exams, both for the National School of Engineering, as well as for PUC. I chose PUC because they had an electronics engineering course (the National School only had electro-technical engineering). From then until the fifth year I was the best student in the class, both in electronics engineering as well as in mechanical and civil engineering – some subjects were common to all the engineering courses.

When you graduated did you do your Master’s degree right away?
Yes. As I was getting ready to leave the country they announced the creation of the course at Coppe [Coordination of Post-graduate Programs in Engineering]. But by this time I’d already been accepted at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and I continued with my project. I’d managed to get a Fulbright scholarship, which was an enormous challenge… My report made it easier to get to MIT, because it said I was the best student out of the 120 in the college. In addition, one of my professors, who’d done his PhD there, gave me a good letter of recommendation. In fact it was because I was accepted at MIT that I got the Fulbright scholarship. They only gave one a year in the engineering and economics areas in Brazil.

How long did you stay there?
I did my Master’s and at the end of the ten months of the scholarship I wanted to stay on to do my PhD. I was going to be 25 in the October. The Master’s was in electronic engineering, but I had to do a course in other subjects in the physics undergraduate course, some for credits and others just to sit in on them, because I wanted to increase my basis in this discipline. I’d already arranged a tutor for my PhD in the area of waves in ferrites, a magnetic material that’s heavily used for micro-waves. There was engineering and also physics as applied to ferrites; half of my subjects were in physics and half in engineering. I don`t have a diploma in physics, just in engineering. When I came back to Brazil at the end of 1967, I went into the Physics Department at PUC in Rio de Janeiro, a new and promising department in various areas.

You brought with you something new from the MIT to add to the department.
I was invited to join the Physics Department because I was working at the frontier between material engineering and physics and no Engineering Department in Brazil had an area like this. Then the following happened: physics laboratories were limited. There was a Van de Graaff accelerator in nuclear physics and a “black box” type spectrometer in the solid state area and for two years I had no equipment to work with. So I began working on theory with Nicim Zagury, to explain problems that had remained unexplained to me. My thesis had both a theoretical and an experimental part…

How would you sum up your PhD thesis findings?
In my thesis I worked with dynamic phenomena and magnetic materials, and I’m still working on them now. Atomically, they have magnetic moments called spins, which have a dynamic. In some materials this dynamic occurs at the microwave frequency, and because of this I joined microwaves and ferrites. I had a tutor who was a theoretician. He had the ideas and then got the student to “make a fool of himself” and do all the work, because he didn’t have this experimental side himself. Some of my colleagues suffered a lot because they were unable to do what he had proposed. I managed to do it because what he proposed to me was feasible. Once again I was lucky, but at the same time I work in this area and have a certain facility in it.

And what did he propose to you theoretically?
He proposed the following: you throw a spin wave into the material, the ferrites, and while it is propagating inside you throw in a magnetic field pulse that changes its frequency. In other words, I managed to cause a frequency conversion in the wave while it was propagating. So I did part of the theory, by extending the theory that he’d already come up with. But, as I said, when I arrived at PUC I had a lot of doubts about the quantum physics I’d done, which is physics based on classic equations. With Professor Zagury I learned more sophisticated things and developed a taste for doing experiments and having the theoretical explanation for the experiment. That’s the way I’ve done things all my scientific life. There are very few of my theoretical pieces of work that don’t have a corresponding experiment. From time to time I formulate some theory to explain an experiment that someone else has done. In the middle of last year someone drew my attention to an article that had been published, also in the spin area, but involving Bose-Einstein condensation. It was an experiment by a group in Germany with spin waves being agitated by microwaves and there was no theory for it. That’s when I got involved. Two of my pieces of work were accepted and I was invited to an international conference to talk about it.

What’s your theoretical proposal for the experiment?
I’m not going to be able to explain it here, but I have a detailed theory that shows that there’s really Bose-Einstein condensation in the experiment and what’s more, I can place a theoretical curve over the experimental points of three other pieces of work of theirs. The group is made up of researchers from the University of Münster, the main one involved in this study, and from the University of Kaiserslautern. But there are various others working on this. Also last year a theoretical study was published in Canada about various pieces of work that show that Bose-Einstein condensation has been made. My theory was very carefully scrutinized in the Physical Review. One article was published in February and a second should come out in a couple of months.

How can an enthusiastic scientist manage to dedicate himself to the political and administrative activities of science and technology? Did this begin in the 1980’s?
In fact it was before that; ever since I went to PUC. After two or three years I became dissatisfied with the conditions there. Well, I’d been a colleague of José Ripper Filho and Nelson de Jesus Parada at MIT. At the time I met Sérgio Porto and Rogério Cezar de Cerqueira Leite, who were from Bell Labs. This whole group was going to Unicamp to build up the Physics area there and they wanted me to join them. But there were two students from Pernambuco on the Master’s course who had left the state along with another three friends who went to USP. The intention of all of them was to go back to Recife and set up a research group in physics – this was in 1969, or 1970. They got to know Sérgio Mascarenhas, who was a member of the decision-making board of the CNPq, and he gave them a great deal of support for this idea. He said that the CNPq would support them financially, provided they arranged a young doctor to go with them. That’s when they came to talk to me and I thought the idea was completely mad. But after I’d thought about it for a bit, and strongly encouraged by Mascarenhas, I ended up accepting.

Sérgio Mascarenhas was a complete visionary!
He told me I was a born leader. He insisted… he mobilized the CNPq to give me their support… I ended up saying I’d go. I’ll stay for three years and then I’ll go back to PUC or Unicamp. But in the middle of all this I passed at Unicamp and moved to Campinas in July 1971 with my family – I already had three daughters. I worked alongside the dean, Zeferino Vaz, with all the people from the physics area. I set up home and I moved out again six months later. I went to Recife. I had to organize a group, because the young Master’s students already had Master’s degrees and needed to do their PhDs. I started looking for other PhDs to be tutors for those young PhD students. Mascarenhas had already contacted some people who according to him could help. With the funds from the CNPq, which was very flexible, I went to the United States. I went to various places. I did the same thing in Europe and I only managed to recruit one recently qualified Brazilian PhD.  So I had to arrange ideas for five PhD theses. But the group was very good and they did what I suggested. Afterwards, we inaugurated a department. We started going after resources to set up laboratories. That’s when I approached the BNDES and Finep. I began having contact with financiers… That’s when the department became a real department. We had a new building by the end of the 1970’s, a lot of support from Finep and money from the BID. Around the Physics Department a center of exact sciences was formed, with mathematics, which already existed. The Departments of IT and Chemistry were also set up. This is a summary of how I began getting involved with the internal management of the university; I stayed there for 15 years.

You’re still at UFPE.
I go there almost every week. I still have a PhD student who, fortunately or unfortunately, is finishing his thesis, because then I’m not going to have anyone. Anyway, I write scientific articles in the name of the Physics Department and I have a place to be in January, 2011: my office, a room 2.5 m by 3.5 m, very small, with everything piled up, but which is where I go at the weekend when I’m there. That’s my own place.

But outside the university, when did you start getting involved with politics in the State of Pernambuco?
In this Department of Physics process I got involved with university politics. I was a member of the University Council several times. I was the founder of the Teachers’ Association at the end of the 1970’s, while there was still a military regime, which was dangerous. That’s when I took part in the amnesty movement and in 1985 I joined the campaign of Miguel Arraes for governor. I had no party loyalty, just a left-wing leaning since I was at PUC in 1968, when I had the idea that things couldn’t continue as they were, etc. In 1986, by which time our department already had a certain reputation in Recife, Tania Bacelar, a well-known economist who was one of the coordinators of the Arraes program, invited me to form a group that could present science and technology proposals to his government. When Arraes was elected they wanted me to join the government as director of the Technology Center. But I didn’t want to leave the university because both the department and the Exact Sciences Center were still being built. When the state Constitutional Assembly was set up in 1989, I got involved in order to convince the constituents and the governor to include the creation of Facepe, The Foundation for the Protection of Science and Technology of the State of Pernambuco, in the Constitution and had brief contact with Arraes. I requested an audience with him, and as I discovered years later, his chief of staff was his grandson, Eduardo Campos, a young man of 20 and some years, who was very intelligent and active. The governor gave his support and the foundation was created. In 1990 I ended up being chosen to be its scientific director. This was when I set foot outside the university: I used to go to Facepe in the morning and to UFPE in the afternoon.

Did you manage to include in the new Constitution the article relating to the allocation of 1% of the state’s tax revenues for funding research via Facepe, in a similar fashion to FAPESP?
We did, and in the first month Governor Carlos Wilson – because Arraes had resigned to be a candidate for congressman – released the equivalent of US$ 1 million. That was a lot of money at the time. The percentage was given for three months, because we prepared a program with scholarships and assistance that was very innovative, like the integration scholarship, aimed at students who lived in the countryside and who were going to study in the capital and return afterwards.

But why was the constitutional rule only observed for three months?
In three months they released the equivalent of US$ 3 million and there it foundered… in Pernambuco that was a lot of money and the governor noticed that the money was still in the account and had not been used. So the next government really put Facepe way down on their list.  I went back to working fulltime at the university. Arraes was elected again in 1995 and invited me to be the Secretary of Science and Technology and I’d only ever met him three times in my life. The second was at the launch of the Facepe programs, when I gave a talk about them. Arraes was in the audience and right after the talk I spoke of the example that the political class in Pernambuco had given, when it created the first research foundation in the Northeast of Brazil. I said that I wanted them to understand that the functioning of Facepe would be different, that the scholarships given were going to be judged on merit and that it was important that they didn’t send little notes asking for them. At the end of the meeting Arraes came to say hello to me and said: “Very well, rest assured that I’m never going to ask you for a scholarship”. I got a fright… Two years later I was in a line at the airport waiting to travel from Brasília to Recife, when I saw him and went up to present myself to him. He said to me: “I already know you, and didn’t I tell you that I’d never ask you for a scholarship? Well, I never asked”. The next contact was when he invited me to be secretary. I started to have an enormous admiration for this person, who was very little known in Brazil, but who had a vision of the question of science and technology that few have. That was when I became more involved with politics. A year later I joined the PSB because of Miguel Arraes. We were responsible for a lot of innovation, great programs, including a program for disseminating technology to the population. This was from 1995 to 1998. Arraes stood for re-election and was badly defeated and the next government undid everything we had done. Facepe once more sank out of sight. We’d created an electro-electronic technology park, Parqtel, which was put to one side and the Digital Port was created. It was important, but there was no need to do away with the Parqtel. Several of the programs we put into place were completely dismantled. Then, when Lula was elected, I’d already had contact with him, because I helped produce the science and technology proposal for the 1994 election program. In the 1998 election he was invited to go to the SBPC in Natal. I received a phone call from Marco Aurélio Garcia [today a special assistant in the President’s Office and at the time, campaign coordinator] saying that Lula needed me to accompany him. He made me a proposal to go to the Ministry of Science and Technology. I sent some proposals that were included in the program and I went to Natal. In 2000 I was invited by Tarso Genro to a meeting with Lula and other party managers at which a science and technology proposal would be discussed for the 2002 campaign. The fact is that when Lula was elected in 2002, I ended up becoming president of Finep.

And in your time at Finep, what was your focus for making the agency faster, more functional?
I had some worries. One of them was with the fact that Finep had played a very important role for 20 years and at the time it was becoming weaker because the FNDCT [National Scientific and Technological Development Fund] became almost extinct with the creation of sector funds. Now, because they were merely sector funds they didn’t allow me to develop a more wide-reaching policy. There were two transversal funds: Infrastructure and the Green-Yellow Fund, but they were specific. One was only for Infrastructure and for public universities and the Green-Yellow Fund was for university-company interaction. They’re transversal, but they don’t allow for a more wide-reaching policy. We began to work at Finep in the direction of what was called transversal actions, using resources from several funds. My concern was to have a good interchange with the ministry and this was easy, because the executive secretary was Vanderlei de Souza, and then, along with Minister Eduardo Campos, Luiz Fernandes came on board and the MCT-Finep interaction continued to be very good. I worked a lot to simplify Finep’s technical and legal procedures. But it’s still a bit slow in some of its actions and this is a process that can’t be solved from one day to the next.

Was Finep your first experience with an institution, the focus of which was not on the construction of scientific knowledge, but on technological innovation?
In fact I only did a little of this at Facepe. When I went there FAPESP was beginning to create programs for supporting technological innovation and we tried to do the same: we created the Support Program for In-company Researchers. In the state government I did a lot more, but it was at the local level. At Finep I started having to face up to this challenge at a national level, shall we say. I was already concerned with the issue of innovation in companies and with the university/company interaction and the challenge was how to do this in national programs.

Does your vision of the national science and technology model involve FINEP staying where it is now or has something got to be changed there?
I think that today’s model is good, with the CNPq, which basically funds the academy, and instruments at various levels: individuals, research nuclei, and now national institutes; in short, it funds the whole of the knowledge chain. Some programs are directed at technology transfer, but most have to do with knowledge generation. Finep on the other hand funds institutions in the academic area, research institutes, research centers, companies and the interface. The configuration is good and our objective here has been to try and consolidate these two roles, both with more resources as well as by making the instruments more systematic.

When you left Finep to go to the ministry, there was in fact a plan for the area, the formulation of which you yourself participated in. How is the relationship between theory and practice?
This policy gained consistency when Eduardo Campos took over. He was not from the area and he did something very important: he summoned the various parts of the ministry, the agencies, and we all got together in Brasília for three days in a strategic planning exercise. We discussed the question and aspects, “And what’s our policy got then?”, “It has four strands, with such and such characteristics…”. So we put what there was into order and did the planning for the subsequent years. So, when I came to stay a year and a half in the ministry my idea was to consolidate what Eduardo Campos had done. He’d fired off in many directions. He constructed the policy and I thought that consolidation was important, particularly the documents. Because of this, at the end of 2006 we prepared a report for the public in general covering the four years of activity, without worrying about the fact that the ministry had had three ministers in this time. When the second mandate started and I continued at the ministry I thought the following: We have a policy, but we need a more detailed four-year plan. At the beginning of 2007 we began constructing our plan, which is a materialization of the ideas of the policy. What’s different about it is that it’s far-reaching, has many actions that are focused and objective and has targets and resources. So, if before some of the actions were not clearly defined, for example, the National Institutes of Science and Technology, we made these actions clear. It was known that the mechanisms of the Millennium Institutes needed improving, so we discussed them, we defined them in more detail, we appointed people, etc. What was fundamental was that we systematized the programs of the National Science and Technology System.

At the end of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso mandate the perception of the scientific community was that Minister Ronaldo Sardenberg had opened up and consolidated some fundamental initiatives for expanding the Brazilian system of science and technology. Sector funds and the discussion proposed by the Second National Science and Technology Conference were examples in this direction. In fact, hasn’t the Lula government simply continued with some of these initiatives?
Yes, we have done, since the first year of the Lula government. There was a crisis in the federal system in the second half of the 1990’s: funds dried up, instruments were interrupted, the number of scholarships fell, so the Sardenberg administration, with secretary Américo Pacheco, did some very important things. One of them was to create sector funds, which give the budgetary support necessary for having a science and technology program. They also did some important things aimed at innovation and university-company interaction. The conference was important; it drew up a balance of what had been done and resulted in the Science and Technology White Book. This book, which I’ve read many times and used a lot, has the elements of a policy, but doesn’t contain an explicit policy. The book was very important and we didn’t change the names of the programs created during the Sardenberg administration. Until recently, the Millennium Institutes kept their name. Pronex, which we’re revitalizing, was created in 1997. So we’ve tried to expand the resources a lot and consolidate programs along the four action axes. With the exception of the fourth, science and technology for social development, something new in the Lula government, all were already in the Sardenberg policy, although not spelt out in the same way. As we went through a crisis, I always say in my presentations that we’re in a transition phase, which began with the creation of the sector funds and ended in 2006, with the conclusion of a policy; we’re really in the consolidation phase of the Brazilian science and technology system.

But with a new international economic crisis upsetting plans, targets, proposals, etc…
It upsets things a bit but doesn’t disturb what’s being done.

But a cut of R$ 1.3 billion in the budget is dramatic.
But it’s a cut relative to a legislative bill, by which in 2009 we will have had an increase of 25% in the ministry’s budget, which is fantastic. With the cut we’ve gone back to the 2008 budget and funds are guaranteed for all the programs that have started.

One of the criticisms made of the Lula government in the science and technology area is how he is always talking about a magic number in his speeches, “We’re investing R$ 41 billion in four years”. Those who are familiar with the policy in the area say that this means R$ 10 billion a year, the amount to be expected as the budget evolves.
The critics say we never invested more than 1% of the GDP, but today there’s a consensus that we’re at 1.1%. The plan for science and technology has R$ 41 billion, which is something it’s never had before. This has allowed us to project an investment of 1.5% of GDP in 2010, when we add up investments from the federal and state governments and from the business sector. To day, I think it’s difficult to reach this figure, but I believe we’ll manage to get to 1.4%.

Isn’t that a very optimistic viewpoint?
Perhaps; I was always very optimistic. But I think that this crisis has already reached the bottom of the well. I read a report that in March vehicle production was the highest it had ever been. How would anyone have believed that possible in December 2008? So, I’m confident that we’ll soon get through this crisis.

What’s your view of the mix we have between funds for research in science and technological research? And does the participation of private companies and the amount of investment seem satisfactory to you?
We need to grow more in the area of technological innovation, but I really believe in the capacity the federal government has for inducing this. We’ve formed partnerships with 19 state governments, proposing to them that they put up the same amount we invest; there’s clear growth in their participation. With regard to the business sector, we still have no clear numbers, but we’ll soon have them through the investments stimulated by the “Lei do Bem”, a set of tax incentives for R&D to boost innovation.

But this law is still little used.
Yes, but we only have the results for two years. In 2006 the investment of companies was R$ 1.5 billion and in 2007 it was R$ 4.5 billion, three times more. The 2008 year has not been finalized yet. This whole process with business is gradual, because it invokes a culture change. What makes business-people really believe that you can innovate and earn revenue with this is the example of others. I believe in the power of induction, because there’s the  “Lei do Bem” and economic subvention; there are various mechanisms for stimulating the business sector.

What are the next steps in Science and Technology’s planning?
We’re beginning to think about the Science and Technology Conference we’re going to hold in May 2010. It’s important that, in addition to what was done over the last few years, it puts together another, more ambitious action plan for the next few years. I think it highly unlikely that we’ll have axes that are different from the four we already have: expansion and consolidation of the system, by preparing human resources; innovation in companies; research in strategic areas; and science and technology that’s directed at social development. But undoubtedly we’ll have more instruments, new strategic areas, in short this is a question to be discussed with the academic world and with business-people.

Aren’t you worried about aging and the lowering of standards in teaching at Brazilian universities?
Yes, I am worried. I believe that Brazilian universities need to rethink the whole way they’re managed. The direct election phase for everything and for everybody was very important because we lived for 20 years with authoritarianism, when things were chosen by few people. But direct elections are not the best way of choosing the best people for a system that naturally must be hierarchical by nature and based on merit.

What’s your expectation with regard to the National Institutes of Science and Technology, which ended up with a much larger number [123] than originally planned?
Yes, there are more of them, but I’m fairly confident in the quality of all of them. The agreements that were signed are five year contracts, with resources guaranteed, a priori, for three years.

Doesn’t it seem to you as though the government of São Paulo State has, in fact, helped consolidate some fundamental policies of the ministry, like the Science and Technology Institutes’ policy?
Yes, its cooperation was fundamental and this is an operation directly with FAPESP, with its scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz and with the secretary of Higher Education, Carlos Vogt, both of whom are personal friends of mine. This was also an operation with secretary Alberto Goldman [the Secretary of Development, who was subsequently substituted by Geraldo Alckmin]. The interaction I had with secretary Goldman with regard to Ipen and IPT was very good and we’re going to deal with secretary Geraldo Alckmin about carrying on in this vein. In other words, despite a divergence of a political and electoral nature, President Lula has good interaction with Governor José Serra, and we have with the secretaries; this is very important for São Paulo and for the country.