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Risky questions

Private institute to invest up to R$18 million per year in innovative research in Brazil

Danny Steaven / wikimedia commons “Serrapilheira” is Portuguese for plant litter, the layer of leaves that covers the soil of forests and woodlandDanny Steaven / wikimedia commons

In Rio de Janeiro this March, documentary filmmaker João Moreira Salles and his wife, linguist Branca Moreira Salles, founded a private institute dedicated to supporting Brazilian research in the life sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The Serrapilheira Institute (named after the Portuguese for plant litter, the layer of leaves that fertilizes forest soil) will have an annual budget of between R$16 million and R$18 million, provided by a R$350 million endowment fund donated by the patron couple. According to the couple, additional contributions may follow, depending on the success of the initiative.

The institute will address two main points of focus. The first, to which most of the funds will be directed, is support for innovative scientific projects, preferably led by young researchers, for a period of four years. “We want researchers to ask risky and courageous questions in their fields of knowledge,” says geneticist Hugo Aguilaniu, 41, of the Genetics of Aging Laboratory at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon (ENS Lyon) in France. Aguilaniu was chosen as president of the institute after a selection process that evaluated the résumés of 138 scientists and science managers.

The institute’s second focus, which will only begin in earnest in 2018, is to promote the dissemination of scientific papers, including for projects not linked to the institute. “We want to reach young people and to encourage them, to show them that science is cool, that it’s a good career. We want to let them know that as well as humanities, the arts, and sport, science is an option too,” he explains.

A call for research proposals is planned for the third quarter of 2017. According to Aguilaniu, the plan is to select up to 100 projects or more and to finance them for a year through seed funding, allocating around R$100,000 to each project. At the end of this period, project leaders will be invited to present an oral defense of their research, and only the most promising ideas—around a dozen of them—will continue to receive financial support of up to R$1 million, depending on their requirements. “What we will look at after the first year is not the number of scientific publications or the immediate impact,” says the president. “We will pay attention to how the lead researcher invested in their idea, adapting concepts when necessary while continuing to seek answers to their initial question. A good researcher will try to find new techniques and collaborate with people around the world. This ability, which characterizes a truly productive thought process in science, will be highly valued.”

The projects will be analyzed by a scientific council composed of 12 researchers from institutions in Brazil and abroad, each with a different field of expertise. Some names have already been announced, such as French mathematician Étienne Ghys of ENS Lyon; engineer Paulo Monteiro, of the University of California at Berkeley; Luiz Davidovich, physicist and president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC); Osvaldo Luiz Alves, chemist and professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP); and geneticist Mayana Zatz, of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Claudio Andrade Edgar Zanotto, chairman of the institute’s scientific council, Hugo Aguilaniu, president, and João Moreira Salles, patronClaudio Andrade

According to materials scientist and chairman of the scientific council Edgar Dutra Zanotto, the project selection and evaluation process will be rigorous. “Projects must be submitted in English so that we can send them to reviewers abroad to minimize conflicts of interest. As well as recommending whether proposals should be approved or rejected, we want reviewers to classify them according to their risk, originality, and relevance, so that we can invest in those with the greatest potential,” he says. He also emphasizes that the researchers accepted will be able to work with great flexibility. “Project leaders will be able to use their grants without the bureaucracy demanded of projects supported by public investment agencies. They will be able to hire or replace scholarship holders without asking for permission, for example, and will only be accountable at the end of the project,” says Zanotto, professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR) and director of the Center for Research, Technology and Education in Vitreous Materials, one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RICDs) financed by FAPESP.

The directors of the Serrapilheira Institute do not intend to limit their activities to projects brought forth by candidates. Hugo Aguilaniu and his team are preparing to travel around the country, meeting research groups and institutions in order to identify impactful scientific initiatives. “We are looking for projects led by researchers who have great potential but may not have put themselves forward—perhaps thinking they have no chance of receiving funding, or because they do not know about the institute,” says the geneticist, who is married to a Brazilian and has been collaborating with Brazilian research groups on studies into aging for several years.

While common in developed countries, private science support institutions are still rare in Brazil (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue nº 219). One existing example is the Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation (FMCSV), which supports research on infant development. João Moreira Salles began planning the institute in 2014, having noticed that science does not occupy a prominent position in Brazilian culture. “Few Brazilians would be able to name an active scientist. Characters with various professions are portrayed in literature, films, or telenovelas, but none are physicists, mathematicians, or chemists. These professions only appear on specialist pages,” explains the filmmaker, whose fortune is estimated at US$2.8 billion by Forbes magazine—he is one of the children of Ambassador Walther Moreira Salles, the founder of the Brazilian bank Unibanco, which merged with Banco Itaú in 2008.

“Too much value is placed on the humanities and social sciences in Brazil. They are important, but there is an imbalance,” he says. “I taught documentary classes to a group of talented young people at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) who were attracted by the charm of cinema. There were 30 students graduating in film per year, in a country that has no film industry, but the mathematics department of the same university had very few students.” Humanities and social sciences are outside the scope of the Serrapilheira Institute, but are in some ways considered by another of the family’s ventures, the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS). The Serrapilheira Institute will open its new headquarters in the Leblon neighborhood in July, comprising a structure of five executives.