On May 3, 1916, on the grounds of the Rio de Janeiro Polytechnic School, a group of researchers founded the Brazilian Society of the Sciences to promote scientific culture and basic research. Henrique Morize (1860-1930) led the initiative, backed by intellectuals and researchers in geology, archeology, mathematics and other fields. Born in France, Morize (a professional geographer, engineer and astronomer) became a Brazilian citizen and directed the National Observatory for 20 years. In the tradition of scientific academies in countries such as France and the United States, the society changed its name to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) in 1921, celebrating its centennial anniversary last month. At the National Congress in Brasilia, an exhibition highlighting the main scientific discoveries of the last 100 years was organized. At the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, a display comprising interactive panels narrates the institution’s history and features 18 Brazilian scientists from a number of fields, including physicist César Lattes and geographer Bertha Becker.
In the early years, the institution dedicated its efforts to organizing conferences and hosting illustrious scientists. In 1925, for example, Albert Einstein was in Brazil to participate in a meeting of ABC members in Rio. A year later, the academy hosted Polish scientist Marie Curie, recipient of two Nobel prizes and its first female laureate. Both Einstein and Curie became ABC correspondents.
“Unlike the experience of other countries, Brazil developed its research potential only later, towards the end of the 19th century. There wasn’t much appreciation for science or justification for investing in it,” explains Shozo Motoyama, a historian at USP’s Interunit Center of Science History. “From the time of its origin, one of ABC’s main objectives was to fight for the institutionalization of Brazilian science through the spreading of knowledge.”
From the 1920s on, ABC dedicated itself to supporting science-education initiatives. One of its first activities was its 1923 participation in establishing Rádio Sociedade (today’s Rádio MEC), Brazil’s first radio broadcasting station. Physician, anthropologist, writer and then-member of the academy, Edgar Roquette-Pinto, who was also one of the pioneers of radio broadcasting, convinced ABC to purchase the equipment needed to set up a radio station in Rio. The station would have an educational objective, broadcasting literature, science and classical music programs. According to Motoyama, “ABC’s founders argued that for the country to develop—even economically—scientific culture would have to be communicated.”
Motoyama goes on to explain that the original purpose of the institution, unlike that of similar academies around the world, did not entail providing scientific advisory services to the government. The French Académie des Sciences, for example, was founded in 1666 by Louis XIV to support scientific research. In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences was created thanks to a law enacted by Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. “In these cases, the governments had already recognized the importance of science. In Brazil, ABC was a professional initiative by scientists themselves seeking recognition,” explains physicist and science historian Olival Freire Junior, professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).
In 1924, ABC took part in the founding of the Brazilian Association for Education (ABE), which greatly influenced establishment of the Ministry of Education and Health, in 1930. It was then that ABC began to take on a political character. In the years that followed, the institution led the movement that, in 1951, called for the creation of the National Research Council, known today as the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). The proposal for establishing the council was put forward by an ABC commission presided over by Admiral Álvaro Alberto da Motta e Silva, an engineer and graduate of Rio de Janeiro’s Polytechnic School who conducted research into chemical explosives. Motta e Silva served two stints at the head of ABC: from 1935 to 1937 and from 1949 to 1951, before leaving the institution to become president of the recently established CNPq.
Also in 1951, some months later, ABC members participated in the founding of the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes). A short time before, in 1948, the academy had backed the establishment of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). In keeping with its objective of representing the country’s diverse scientific organizations, SBPC began its collaboration with ABC in support of the interests of the scientific community.
The task of advising federal government organizations on scientific matters came to the fore in the 1970s, during the period of military rule. At that time, the federal government developed its first and second Basic Plan for Scientific and Technological Development and recognized ABC’s central role in the country’s system of science and technology. “The academy began to issue expert reports and conduct studies on behalf of the government. Payments from the government contributed to ABC’s maintenance,” says Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, FAPESP vice-president and ABC president from 1993 to 2007. Under his management, Krieger introduced a new dynamism to this mission by creating working groups for the development of studies and symposiums. The results of these efforts were published in book form, which consolidated knowledge surrounding key issues and helped administrators and officials to aide public policy.
In 2004, for example, ABC presented the federal government with proposals for reforming higher education. One of these proposals sought to introduce an interdisciplinary curriculum to help set up new federal universities. In 2010, another document addressed the issue of water in an analysis of the functioning and management of Brazil’s water resources systems. In the energy sector, experts associated with ABC developed a diagnostic method for biofuels demonstrating that sugarcane derived ethanol production was not harmful to world food security. Published in 2014, the latest study looks at translational medicine, which seeks to accelerate the interaction between laboratory and clinical research.
Today, ABC has a membership of 960 academics, of which 535 are full members, 198 foreign corresponding members, and 58 associates. Another 167 are young scientists who hold five-year membership to the academy. Two more are collaborative members. The majority of these members are active in biomedical research, physics, mathematics, and chemistry. According to new ABC President Luiz Davidovich, professor at the Physics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IF-UFRJ), the institution intends to broaden its engagement with society. “We will invest,” says Davidovich, “in science communication initiatives that can make ABC better known. We want to increase our presence on the Internet and in social networks.”
To Shozo Motoyama, ABC could increase its efforts to disseminate scientific information. “In general, ABC remains a great unknown to Brazilians. In the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences has a museum, the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C., that is open to the public, with exhibits showing how science relates to everyday life.”
Mathematician Jacob Palis, a full professor at the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) and ABC president from 2007 to 2016, recalls another of the academy’s challenges. In a ceremonial speech during the centenary celebration at the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio, Palis mentioned the role of women in the sciences, and the institution’s priority in emphasizing this role. “We would like to find women to elect into the academy. Women should have a greater presence. Currently, ABC’s membership comprises 826 men and only 134 women.Republish