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International Year of Chemistry

Seeking creativity

Education, science, technology and innovation should be seen in an integrated way

Estevan PelliThe education of future talent is a topic that had to be included in an event christened Chemistry: our life, our future, as is the case of this International Year that has been decreed by UNESCO. In keeping with the importance of the theme, a heavyweight trio was behind the event: Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director and a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute of the State University of Campinas, César Zucco, Chairman of the Brazilian Chemistry Society and a professor at the Department of Chemistry of the Federal University of the State of Santa Catarina and Ronaldo Mota, Secretary of Technological Development and Innovation for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and a professor at the Federal University of Santa Maria, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

“What we need to do is to transform the knowledge produced by universities and companies into benefits for the population,” says Paulo Cezar Vieira, from the Federal University of São Carlos, coordinator on October 5 of the round of conferences organized by FAPESP and by the Brazilian Chemistry Society as part of the International Year of Chemistry.

From the privileged viewpoint of FAPESP, one of the country’s main research promotion agencies, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz showed that the community of researchers in the field of chemistry is still small relative to the country’s requirements. Over the course of the last decade, the approval rate of chemistry projects at FAPESP has remained at around 60%. This is much higher than that observed in other countries, such as the 20% figure in England (Research Councils) and the 17% figure in the United States (NSF). Without losing sight of the context, FAPESP’s scientific director is of the opinion that these figures reflect the difference between those countries that already have an established community and those that are still creating one.

Between 1996 and the present, the number of researchers asking FAPESP for financing each year has stabilized around 350to 400. “To cover the topics that are necessary for Brazil’s development with a significant global impact, we need a much larger community,” stated Brito. For him, this means more universities, more research institutes and more research in companies. A striking fact is that the public calls for FAPESP’s Bioenergy Research Program, Bioen, which by definition involves a large number of chemists, have produced a limited number of proposals. “All the major researchers are busy with projects that already have financing,” was his assessment.

What we understand by “high global impact” are relevant results for a larger scientific community. A good measure of the impact of a study, explained Brito, is the extent to which scientific articles are cited by other researchers. For instance, in the last five years, China has become one of the most productive countries in terms of the number of articles published. In the field of chemistry, articles from Brazil have an impact equal to 60% of the global average, like those produced in China. Articles from Spain, however, have an impact equal to 120% of the global average.

The quantity is not reflected in the rate of citations, making it clear that there is a lack of influence in the area. “Do we want to produce lots of articles or really good articles?” he asked, suggesting that Brazil should attach greater value to the impact of high quality work and worry less about the “numbers,” even as criteria for FAPESP advisors when evaluating projects. One strategy for Brazilian researchers, according to him, is to place more value on international collaborations, which have greater impact.

“The research with the greatest impact is that which discovers something that the chemistry books said was impossible,” he said, referring to the lucky coincidence to be speaking on the same day as the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The winner was the Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman, who jotted down in his laboratory notebook that it was impossible, when he saw a quasicrystal for the first time. And it was precisely those quasicrystals that earned him global recognition. Very often that which was deemed impossible is shown not only to be possible, but also important. And it can generate economic applications.

However, such daring science that stands out for its importance is sometimes undertaken with no particular purpose in mind. In order to become more competitive, it is essential that good scientists do not spend their time on bureaucratic tasks, such as supervising the maintenance of equipment, arranging accommodation for visitors and rendering accounts. “We are working in the universities so that researchers get more institutional support.” This is an important step toward generating more time for creative activities and for quality tuition.

Eduardo CesarCarlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, Ronaldo Mota and César ZuccoEduardo Cesar

Omnipresent
Teaching was the highlight of César Zucco’s speech. “Knowledge of the natural world is basically rooted in chemistry and it works for all of humankind,” he stressed. However, as with everything that produces benefits, we cannot ignore the risks of chemistry. Therefore, we need to gain more knowledge, he emphasized. And the classroom comes into this equation with benefits in both directions, he revealed, citing the Polish scientist Roald Hoffman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981, who declared that he only became a good researcher because he had to teach beginner level classes.

Traditional chemistry courses prepare students to know, use and interpret nature’s scientific explanations. But teaching, according to Zucco, will only produce innovative minds if it is successful in relation to the challenge of renewing itself. “We need to prepare students to generate evidence, understand the scientific process and participate,” he explained. According to him, the key characteristics of the chemists of the future should be daring and intellectual rebelliousness. For this year’s Nobel Prize winner, to observe a structure that ran contrary to all predominant thinking required boldness in order to overcome the studies. And to convince the world of this, to the point of winning the world’s greatest scientific award, it took persistence and confidence.

“You need to set up a place where they teach invention, technology and creativity.” This place should be much more than a laboratory: something that combines teaching, laboratory and factory. One model could be FabLab@School, founded in 2009 at Stanford University in California, by Paulo Blikstein, a Brazilian, whose aim is to create these very conditions so that children take part in inventive projects.

Good teachers, in Zucco’s view, should have a lot more than just degrees and charisma. They need techniques in order to inspire young people. He showed figures that indicated that the number of chemistry degree courses, including both bachelor’s degrees and teaching degrees, has tripled over the last decade, and that the number of teachers has also been growing in this area of science. However, this is not enough, because the drop-out rates are very high: less than half of those who begin a degree course manage to finish it four years later.

The lack of qualified teachers – a shortfall of 50 thousand in the disciplines of physics and chemistry – is one problem, but it is more important to embrace the responsibility that chemists have in the face of the twenty-first century’s challenge, namely to realize the finite quality and exhaustibility of the world’s natural resources and to ensure the continuation of life on earth. After all, a world without chemistry would be, as he pointed out, a world without synthetic materials, without telephones, cinemas, cosmetics, medicines and plastics.

Development
The advances produced by chemistry in people’s daily lives depend, to a great extent, on companies also participating in the process, in the wake of the scientific discovery or even of the prototype developed. Ronaldo Mota revealed that in Brazil the link between research and companies is still weak, and that companies invest little in the expansion of knowledge. Only very recently, according to him, conditions more conducive to innovation have arisen in Brazil, when a regulatory framework was set up that shares the economic risks of investment in research and innovation between government and companies. Another factor that has had a similar effect is that of macroeconomic stability, which has played a crucial role, along with inflation being under control, fiscal responsibility, an appreciated currency etc.

For him, it is a two way street. “It’s not desirable to engage in science with no link to industrial policy, and you can’t innovate without good science.” That is why it is important for a cultural change to occur, which, in his opinion, has already begun to take place. When good science is not incorporated into the productive system, it does not lead to social benefits – it is a waste. “Now it’s as if the snake has bitten its tail: innovation is not just the target, it’s your point of departure as well. Innovation is increasingly becoming one of the pillars that help to define the important research programs.”

In addition to all the economic and industrial policy mechanisms, one factor stands out in this cultural change: education compatible with an era of innovation. To achieve this, one must get the students into the process so that they can see the world as it is along with the requirements of production, but, according to him, the university structure has not yet grasped what is taking place. “The world has changed, the way in which knowledge is produced has changed, and the methodologies used to transfer knowledge have changed very quickly. But the teaching system remains the same,” he complained.

“The way that they’re teaching you is wrong,” he told the students in the audience, “they want you to have nothing in your heads, nothing in advance, they want you to study only afterwards, when the real secret is to study beforehand, exploring at the highest level the self-instruction process.” The proposal is a radical one. If we accept the idea that the lecture -study-test model has failed, then students need to have access to knowledge even before the class. The entire program should be available right from the start of the course, exploring new technologies in a context in which knowledge is totally accessible and freely available, the analysis of this content beforehand becoming a prerequisite for the presence of students. There’s no point in academic disciplines not having their respective pages with room for virtual interaction. “The classroom is a place for people who have already shown preliminary interest and for teachers who have understood this new process.”

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