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Human resources

Strategies for attracting and rewarding talent

Experts discuss how to increase interest in scientific careers among young people and better appreciate the work of researchers in Brazil

Talita Hoffmann

A letter published in February in the journal Science exposed a malaise shared by young Brazilian researchers: the perception that, now that it is their turn, the country offers very few work opportunities and low funding, making the path towards consolidating their career more difficult. Titled “Invistam em pesquisadores em início de carreira no Brasil” (Invest in researchers at the beginning of their career in Brazil), the letter points out that, although the country has increased the number of graduate doctors to a level of over 20,000 per year, the scarcity of federal funding for science since 2015 has created an unsettling picture: many of the approximately 100,000 scientists that are still seeking to consolidate themselves in the profession are unemployed or working in areas that do not explore their potential and high-level qualification.

“There is a lot of talk about the brain drain, but a large proportion of young doctors actually stay here, in jobs that do not require the long preparation and investment of a scientific career,” says biologist Thaís Barreto Guedes, to Agência FAPESP. A researcher at the Institute of Biology of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Guedes wrote the letter with colleagues from the federal universities of Goiás and Bahia, from the University of Richmond, in the USA, and from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, UK. “Every profession is worthy, but the country has opted to invest in training researchers and now is not seeking to recover this investment. It is like building a mansion and abandoning it.” For her, young Brazilian researchers need to be consulted and included in the planning committees that discuss what is the most suitable model to fix their careers in Brazil. “This is not being done,” she complains.

The biologist’s trajectory illustrates, to a certain level, the difficulties of remaining in a career even for those who have a consistent curriculum: she completed her PhD at São Paulo State University (UNESP) 11 years ago and did three successive postdoctoral fellowships, with grants from FAPESP and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq): at the Butantan Institute, at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, and at the Federal University of São Paulo. In 2022, she obtained a grant from the FAPESP Young Investigators in Emerging Research Institutions Program, which supports projects that favor the training of new research groups in São Paulo and offer five-year fellowships to project supervisors, if they do not yet have an employment relationship with the institution.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The perception that the path for this generation has been obstructed adds to the evidence that fewer Brazilians are attracted to scientific careers. In large due to the pandemic, the number of graduate doctors in the country had an unprecedented drop in 2020 and 2021 and several postgraduate programs have suffered from the reduced number of candidates, even after the end of social distancing (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 315). Even at FAPESP, whose PhD fellowships have not suffered cuts in their amounts as has happened with those offered by federal agencies, the demand for this type of funding dropped by around 30% in the period from 2020 to 2022, without returning to the levels of demand prior to the pandemic. Despite the reduction, demand continues to far outweigh the offer.

The recent readjustment of federal agency grants and the declared intention of the government to increase public funding in science may represent a relief in this adverse scenario, observes molecular biologist Odir Dellagostin, president of the Brazilian National Council of State Funding Agencies (CONFAP) and chairman of the State Funding Agency of Rio Grande do Sul (FAPERGS). He stresses that the change is very recent and incipient. “We had an increase in the value of federal grants, but it has still not reached all the modalities with which the CNPq works. I am optimistic. I think that in 2024 we will have results in terms of attracting and retaining researchers again,” he says. One requirement for this to happen is guaranteeing continued funding. “When the researcher receives regular support, they can advance their projects and create knowledge. If there are no funds, the motivation drops to zero and the teams break up,” says Dellagostin, who also highlights the change of atmosphere with the change of government. “The hostile context in the last four years signaled to the population that science was not worth it.”

Talita Hoffmann

There are complex reasons behind the loss of interest in scientific careers and it has occurred in several countries. For decades, the USA and UK have had difficulties recruiting a work force for their science and technology systems from among their citizens and have imported researchers from abroad, especially from countries such as India and China. “Many talented students from universities that could continue in academic careers are attracted by extremely well-paid opportunities in the private sector,” says physicist Ricardo Osório Galvão, president of the CNPq. He observes that the popularization of social media networks may also have had a role in the loss of interest. “Three years ago, I discussed this subject in a debate with the researcher Mariette DiChristina, who was editor of the journal Scientific American and currently works in the Department of Scientific Journalism at the University of Boston. She said that social media networks had sparked an anxiety in people for rapid and noncomplex answers that keep them away from the in-depth questions of science, like they had no patience for them,” he says. The only way of tackling the problem, in the assessment of Galvão, is investing in education to improve the scientific literacy of young Brazilians, whose performance in learning assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is extremely precarious (see graph).

Sociologist Sandra Unbehaum, a researcher from the Carlos Chagas Foundation, observes that, for the majority of low-income children and adolescents, schools are not always a stimulating environment for scientific curiosity. “Many have laboratories, but they are poorly equipped. The libraries are normally precarious — few have a dedicated librarian to guide the students. These young people face many obstacles to be able to reach a university and a scientific career and, even with the support of affirmative actions, there are still few who manage it,” says Unbehaum, who coordinated the recent report “Panorama de educação Stem no Brasil: Ensino de ciências e suas tecnologias: Análise de 2010 a 2020” (An overview of STEM education in Brazil: Teaching of sciences and its technologies: Analysis from 2010 to 2020), commissioned by the British Council. The document points out other hurdles, such as the scarcity of physics and chemistry teachers in schools — the subjects end up being taught by people without suitable training.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The president of the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), Mercedes Bustamante, considers that it is necessary to be cautious in the assessment of the postgraduation crisis and says there are different realities in the country that require different strategies for the retention of young doctors. “If there is a reduction in the search for postgraduation in more consolidated regions, in the North region the demand is still greater than the offer,” she compares. According to her, there is also a lack of clarity about variables such as the real level of influence of the pandemic on the crisis of the system. “There were people who delayed plans to enter into postgraduation just so they could do it in person,” she analyses. She points out other factors involved, such as wear to the model of training researchers, which is visible in several parts of the world and relates to the rigidness of the courses in an increasingly interdisciplinary world. “Students want more freedom of movement in their areas and it will be necessary to make the training more flexible and attractive,” she says.

CAPES plans to organize a national postgraduation census. “We need to know the trajectories of our alumni better to design the appropriate solutions.” These paths are different both regionally and between fields of knowledge. “There are some areas, like the ones that deal with information systems, such as automation and artificial intelligence, in which there is a lack of human resources and the professionals are quickly absorbed by the market, even without taking graduate courses. Brazil will need qualified people in these areas and it will be necessary to invest in them,” Bustamante forecasts. The rhythm and path of the economy will dictate new challenges to the system. “The young researchers need to be absorbed by the private sector, which historically employs few doctors. There is a demand for the reindustrialization of the country, but not in the format of the industry of the twentieth century. We are also going to need good scientists in the management of public policies.”

Talita Hoffmann

For Renato Janine Ribeiro, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), the realization, up to the first half of 2024, of a National Science, Technology, and Innovation Conference could help to modulate the ambitions of the graduate system and attract funding to the country’s priority areas. “The conference should signal to researchers the areas in which Brazil intends to be a protagonist and leader in the production of knowledge, and which will be treated with priority for the development of the country,” he says. “This will certainly be the case for the areas in which fate has been in our favor, such as the environment and the biodiversity of the Amazon.” For him, allocating more public resources to science remains essential. “A career in research other than teaching at a public university is practically inexistent in this country. It would be attractive if there were competitions, competitive salaries, good retirement prospects, and a career plan.”

There is a consensus that some retention strategies need to be strengthened, such as increasing postdoctoral fellowships, fundamental for keeping young researchers active while they do not enter an institution on a permanent basis. “In 2015, we had 9,000 CAPES and CNPq postdoctoral fellowships, today we have 4,300. Considering the increase in the number of doctorates awarded in the last eight years, we would have to create some 7,500 fellowships to recover the ground,” informs Dellagostin, of CONFAP.

There are other fronts for discussion. In Brazil, postgraduate training is divided into two years for a master’s degree and four years for a PhD. Fellowship beneficiaries are expected to dedicate themselves exclusively to the activity of research. This means that many are late getting their first formal job, after 35 years of age, almost 10 years later than the norm in developed countries. An idea that has been gaining momentum is including National Institute of Social Security (INSS) contributions and the counting of the time towards retirement into the postgraduation period. “In the past, this was not necessary because many joined the teaching staff while they were still doing their master’s degree,” says Dellagostin. “If these students graduate at 38 years of age and only then start making INSS contributions, they will have a very different professional life than they would have in other careers,” says Marcio de Castro, scientific director of FAPESP (see interview). For him, this is the moment to discuss different models than those currently in force. “A master’s degree has become a professional program. Only a third of those with master’s degrees go on to do a PhD. But we insist on demanding a master’s degree as part of the training of a researcher. Wouldn’t it be better to reinforce the doctoral and postdoctoral programs?” he asks.

Biochemist Jorge Guimarães, who has presided over CAPES and the Brazilian Agency for Industrial Research and Innovation (EMBRAPII), considers that there are three simple initiatives that the government could do in the short term to improve the conditions of young scientists. The first would be to change the focus of the CNPq’s productivity-based fellowships, which today offer a supplement to remuneration of between R$1,200 and R$1,560 to researchers as recognition for their production and the work of guiding students. “These fellowships were established by the CNPq a long time ago, when full time teaching at universities was not yet widespread and the salaries of the teaching staff were low. Today, they mean little to senior researchers who receive them, but would make all the difference if they were redirected, and with attractive amounts, to young teaching staff from federal and state universities that still have unrewarding salaries,” he says.

CNPq plans to repatriate researchers, offering temporary work contracts instead of fellowships

Another suggestion relates to the repatriation of researchers. “Countries such as Argentina and China have created programs to attract the return of scientists that moved abroad, offering work opportunities and specific funding of the respective projects. We could launch initiatives to promote repatriation or so that researchers living abroad spend periods in Brazil and connect with groups here,” he says. A third front would be the creation of positions within universities and in other science and technology institutions, but unrelated to teaching. Guimarães proposes awarding public resources to already established groups to contract researchers under the CLT [Consolidation of Labor Laws] regime to work on their projects. “Several institutions such as EMBRAPA, CNPEM, and IMPA have had their researchers and technical staff on CLT contracts for several years. The 96 units of EMBRAPII contract researchers on official labor contracts. This is possible because EMBRAPII is a social organization and does not follow the rules of public institutions. If groups linked to postgraduate programs had this prerogative, they could incorporate a contingent of young talents into their projects, helping to retain them,” he says.

Ricardo Galvão, from the CNPq, says that the agency plans to launch a new program, with funds from the National Scientific and Technological Development Fund (FNDCT), to repatriate Brazilian doctors working abroad. The initiative already has a name, Science in Reconstruction, but its format is still under analysis in the legal area of the agency. The initial idea is to offer researchers not fellowships but temporary employment contracts that could reach up to four years in length. “The new labor legislation allows the public service to give temporary contracts, possibly through university support foundations,” he adds. The target is to bring the researchers to work not just in science and technology institutions but also in companies. “The objective is to repatriate doctors linked in particular to areas in which we have a lack of professionals, such as digital technologies, and help boost innovation in companies,” says the president of the CNPq. There is still no provision for when the initiative will be launched.

In recent years, the exodus of researchers moving abroad has fueled the idea that the country was experiencing an unprecedented brain drain, driven by the lack of funding and opportunities. A recent study by the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE) estimated that around 3,000 researchers have gone to work in institutions abroad in the past years. “The problem appears to be increasing, but the contingent is restricted when compared to the waves of talent fleeing from other countries,” explains sociologist Ana Maria Carneiro, a researcher from the Public Policy Study Center at UNICAMP, who is doing a survey to map the situation and the motivations of highly qualified Brazilians who work abroad in academic careers, government agencies, companies, and startups.

Preliminary data from her study will be presented in July at the annual SBPC meeting in Curitiba. They concern just over 1000 questionnaires answered by researchers who work abroad, including postdoctoral researchers and teaching staff from universities (around 60%), students (30%), and individuals who work and study abroad (around 10%). Half of them left after 2018 and 82% left without any expectation of returning. The reasons given for leaving the country were varied, such as employment offers abroad, better conditions of funding and infrastructure, chances for career progression, and quality of life, among others. “The troubled political situation in Brazil also appears as a motivation, especially for those that left in the last four years,” she says.

The good news is that a portion of those that left think about returning. For around 35%, returning is conditional upon employment opportunities, while 11% would accept a partial return, maintaining activities both within the country and abroad. Fifteen percent plan to return only after they retire. The questionnaire ends with an open question about which public policies should be created so that the country makes the best use of the potential of these qualified human resources that are abroad. “It is possible to identify three major themes,” explains Ana Maria Carneiro. The first covers increasing funding for science. The second is encouraging internationalization. “There is a sense that the research environment in Brazil is still averse to collaborations,” says the sociologist. A third set of recommendations deals with contributions that they could make. “Some propose doing activities such as participating in the assessment committees of funding agencies and judging competitions. The majority show willingness to receive Brazilian students and colleagues in their institutions. According to Carneiro, with the change of government, better perspectives have been created for repatriating Brazilian talent. “But it is necessary to advance in the sense of providing conditions to retain young scientists and investing in research infrastructure, which has been scrapped in many institutions,” she explains.