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Fernando Galembeck

Science and Innovation

Fernando Galembeck, professor at the Unicamp Institute of Chemistry, is director of the National Nanotechnology Laboratory of the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM)

Thales of Miletus, a geometrician and astronomer considered by some to be the first scientist, was also skilled at transforming knowledge into wealth. One year, he predicted that there would be a large crop of olives and bought many oil presses, reselling them at harvest time. He was able to make a great profit and meet the needs of oil producers. If he had not ordered the presses in advance, there would have been no way to press all the olives. Therefore, the first scientist knew how to use knowledge to generate wealth for himself and others.

In today’s context, we have a global challenge, created by a growing population and an expected increase in consumption, in a context of finite natural resources. We would like sustainable or durable development, which requires new knowledge. And we also need to change attitudes.

New scientific knowledge creates opportunities for innovation, but also raises questions: which science? Which innovation? Resources are always limited, especially in countries with a low per capita income and a low human development index. In Brazil, which has little infrastructure, the situation is particularly serious and the questions multiply: on what should we spend? How much can we spend? Who will spend? How? Will the funds spent provide sustainability for the system? For the country? For the world? These issues must always be present in the minds of scientists, researchers and managers.

Today, many groups all over the world are addressing these problems. The Carnegie Group, for example, is composed of the science and technology ministers of the G8 nations and concerns itself with Research Facilities of Global Interest among other topics. These are now mainly the large particle accelerators and astronomical observatories. Recently, the Carnegie Group began discussing the scientific needs of sustainability and transition to a “green” economy. A current conclusion is that the needed infrastructure does not exist, regardless of the intrinsic merits of the facilities that do already exist. In other words, there are no suitable facilities to support the scientific work required to resolve global problems. This situation harkens back to the question: which science?

True science must be original and competitive, state of the art. This is why I see a widespread problem: students and professors often read many scientific papers, but they rarely read patents, and therefore miss much of the latest knowledge. Research proposals submitted to funding agencies often propose research already described in patents granted by the USPTO and other patent offices.

In order for the science we are doing to have a truly radical impact, it must be significant in a broad context. We must also review some ideas about the organization and structuring of science. An article published in the July/August issue of American Scientist, entitled What creates static electricity?, challenges the belief that the question of electrostatics was resolved in nineteenth-century physics, and that it remains only a physics problem. According to the author, answers to persistent electrostatics problems are currently arising in chemistry and other areas. This and many other important cases are ignored in our country, still imbued with ideas and scientific hierarchies that come from positivism. Although out-of-date, these continue to be taught to our students and underpin the development of curricula and budgets.

Which innovations are interesting? Innovation depends on development, which is expensive, so it only makes sense to encourage R&D work with a well-defined focus and concrete applications. Innovation must meet emerging needs, and it is essential to know in which sectors of agriculture, industry and services these needs lie. Innovation has economic, strategic or social impacts, and again we need to know: in what scenarios? In what context? For whom? In principle, science benefits everyone, but innovation often benefits some and not others, and may even harm many.

Ten years ago, amid the euphoria surrounding nanotechnology, some described it as the solution to all of mankind’s problems. Nuclear power was also presented, in the mid-twentieth century, as a solution to all problems—and we know what happened. Any new technology creates environmental, social and economic risks and the same applies for nanotechnology. Therefore, the decisions on incentives for innovation and science that it demands must be informed by an analysis of the balance between benefits and risks.

Busy with experiments, Pasteur had no time for a social life

Science and innovation require passion, illustrated in a painting that shows Pasteur completing an experiment while Madame Pasteur prepares to leave. Her husband was very busy and could not take time for a social life until he had the answer he was seeking in the experiment. Pasteur is a great example of the ability to do both scientific creation and innovation, saving lives. According to him, “There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are sciences and applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it.” To understand this sentiment, remember that Pasteur was a good Catholic, familiar with the Gospel of St. Luke, where we read that the tree which produces bad fruit is not good and that which produces good fruit is not bad. Here are two ideas: first, both the tree and the fruit can be good or bad. Furthermore, not only does the tree provide the fruit, but the fruit also gives rise to the tree, i.e. the processes that link science and innovation are not linear, nor unidirectional.

This is precisely why the Pasteur Institute, a revered but still modern world temple of science, is also the holder of 382 patents filed with the USPTO since 2001. It engages in first-class science and innovation that fertilize each other, creating a sustainability that is not seen in other important research organizations.

If we want innovation, we must educate for innovation. I remember with gratitude the people who contributed to my education, such as Ney Galvão da Silva, president of Indústria Química Santo Amaro S/A, the manufacturer of tetracycline, of the Laborterápica-Bristol group in the 1950s-1960s, in São Paulo. He was the supervisor of my first internship, in which I studied semi-synthetic penicillins and oxacillins. In our first conversation, after a week of training, he wanted to see what I had done, and upon seeing the data I had collected, he asked me if I intended to just read articles. I responded yes, and he asked me about patents. “A lot of information in this area is in patents,” he observed, and so I went to look at patents. I learned that from him.

Pawel Krumholz, my thesis advisor, is another to whom I must pay tribute. Head of Orquima S/A, he produced caffeine by methylation of theobromine. In Brazil, one would normally produce it by extracting it from coffee. But the alert person who knows a little chemistry—and he knew a lot—realizes that it is much better to extract theobromine from cacao and transform that into caffeine. He obtained a patent from the USPTO for separation of rare earths in 1963, and others in Europe, which demonstrates the level of competence we attained in this area. Today the Brazilian government has an interest in this, but we realize how much time was lost due to lack of policies. We need to have policies.

I conclude by remembering Carmine Taralli, Pirelli R&D Director in the 1990s. He applied himself to the question of “how to make businesses facing the risk of reduced innovation dare to pursue innovation.” He classified this task as wonderful, recalling that he had spent his entire life “in innovation and new product development.” I had the pleasure of working with him in developing the insulation for the wires that are currently installed in the Eurotunnel. They were created and produced in Brazil.

I go back to the subject of global challenge: ensuring food, raw materials and energy for 9 billion people in a few decades. In the United States, this challenge is reflected in the DOE and USDA’s 30/30 program: 30% replacement of oil by 2030. This requires about 1 billion metric tons of biomass per year. What is the situation in Brazil? Here, production of biomass waste reached about 1 billion metric tons in 2010, the result of 30 years of innovation and that puts us, perhaps for the first time in history, 18 years ahead of the United States. Another important element in this picture is the eucalyptus, today valued for its excellence in paper and energy production. Its development for this purpose took place in Brazil and is now being transferred to other countries.

We have followed a path that might also be suitable for other countries similar to Brazil. We can tackle the global problem by using biomass, but we need to have strategies, and a plan, and then we will obtain results: new science, new products, processes and more goods for even more people in a sustainable framework.

This and the following articles are the result of talks given at the first of seven preparatory meetings for the 2013 World Science Forum, held at the main offices of FAPESP August 29 – 31, 2012