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Taking a breather

Incongruous results in two different rankings open up the debate about the limits of growth in Brazilian academic production

MIGUEL BOYAYANTwo rankings listing worldwide scientific production published in July gave results that were incongruous regarding Brazil’s academic performance in 2007. The traditional Thomson Scientific database indicates that Brazil is still keeping up with the pace although it remains in 15th position in the worldwide ranking that it achieved last year. There were 19,428 articles published in scientific periodicals and indexed on the database, 2,556 more than in 2006. As a result in 2007 Brazil accounted for 2.02% of the entire world’s scientific production, compared with 1.92% in the previous year. According to the data Brazil is a little ahead of Switzerland and Sweden and is catching up with the Netherlands and Russia. The Scopus database, on the other hand, marketed by publishing house, Elsevier, recorded 26,369 Brazilian articles in foreign publications, 292 fewer than in 2006, with the country also in 15th position in the ranking, but with 1.75% of worldwide production. As the two databases consider different universes it is difficult to state if the difference is accidental and what the current trend is. The Web of Science tool from Thomson Scientific, covers almost 10,000 periodicals compared with the 15,000 of the SCImago tool from Scopus. In years covered by the SCImago database (1996 to 2008) Scopus has up to 45% more entries than Thomson. Even so, the difference opened up a debate about the future and the expansion limits of Brazilian academic production.

Biologist Marcelo Hermes-Lima, a professor at the University of Brasília (UnB) and co-editor of the on-line periodical, PLoS One, said in his Ciência Brasil [Brazil Science] blog that the variation detected by Scopus may be the first sign of saturation. “In my opinion, the increase in Brazilian scientific production is reaching its limit, in other words, the rate of growth may well be between 0 and 2% over the next few years, which is the limit of the vegetative growth of the population of true scientists. In other words, we’re at the saturation point on the growth curve in the number of papers produced in Brazil”, he said. But Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the SciELO Brasil electronic library considers it is necessary to wait another year to evaluate the trend. “It’s too early to state that Brazilian production has reached a peak”, says Meneghini, a specialist in scienceometry, a discipline that seeks to generate information to encourage overcoming the challenges of science. “There was no holding back on investments, which would justify a drop, even though Brazil invests less than countries like China and South Korea, whose academic production is justifiably growing at a higher speed than ours”, says Meneghini. While Brazilian production has grown by 133% over the last ten years that of China has advanced by 300%. In Brazil areas linked to biology and medical sciences, like medicine, agriculture, biochemistry genetic and molecular biology, followed by physics and astronomy, are the most productive. The five institutions with the largest number of articles published are the University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), he Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Jacqueline Leta, a researcher at UFRJ, draws attention to the fact that despite the growth in Brazilian scientific production, the relative share of Brazilian articles in high impact international scientific journals, like Science and Nature, is not. “The indicators show the international visibility of a part of Brazilian production, but they are influenced by a series of factors and cannot be taken literally as signs of quality”, she states. “In my opinion a question that is posed is if these publications would be interested in expanding the number of articles from emerging countries like Brazil. I don’t think so, which has more to do with the commercial rules in this publishing market than with the supply of qualified studies”, Jacqueline said.

MIGUEL BOYAYANA relevant fact in the discussion has to do with the number of PhDs in Brazil, which grew by ten times between 1980 and 2006, going from 1000 to almost 10,000 professionals a year. The scientific director of FAPESP, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, highlights the fact that the curve of the increase in scientific production has gone hand in hand over the last few years with the growth in the number of PhDs and with the qualification of academic institutions. “The increase in the number of scientific articles correlates very closely with the growth in doctors qualifying. In São Paulo the ratio between the number of articles and the number of scientist is comparable to that of countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), indicating that in order to increase scientific production we need more scientists”, says Brito Cruz. The number of PhDs is still growing but not at the speed of ten years ago. Between the mid-90s and 2003, the rate of growth of PhD theses defended was 16% a year. From 2003 on, however, there was a slowing down in this growth rate to 4% a year. The behavior of the indicators leads to the supposition that this loss of momentum will have an impact in the future on academic production. This link is reinforced by data from the Coordination for the Improvement of University-level People (Capes), according to which 85% of Brazilian national production is carried out in the post-graduation system.

The growth in academic production and the number of PhDs tend to stabilize in countries that have mature science and technology systems, but is this the case in Brazil? In absolute numbers the 10,000 PhDs that qualify every year in Brazil are at a level similar to countries like England, India and South Korea, while in relative numbers the situation is very different. Brasil produces 5 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 12.1 in Japan, 13.6 in South Korea, 14 in the United States, 24 in the UK and 30 in Germany.

According to the president of Capes, Jorge Guimarães, the country needs more researchers. “We’re a reference point in agriculture and dental areas and this needs to be valued. But in comparison with other countries our number of researchers is dramatically low. We have to improve a lot”, he said in a speech at the 60th meeting of the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science (SBPC) last month. While states in the southeast of Brazil have a proportion of 30 to 35 PhDs per 100,000 inhabitants, in the north and northeast it does not exceed 10. The highest level is in the Federal District, with 41.3 PhDs per 100,000 inhabitants. The lowest is Tocantins, with 3.8 PhDs per a 100,000 inhabitants. For Guimarães, the great challenge is to prepare specialists in the less favored regions. “There’s no other way of tackling the problem other than by qualifying groups of people”, he assesses.

The post-graduation concentration in Brazil can also be seen in the number of PhDs qualifying from Sao Paulo state universities. USP, with 2,000 PhDs a year and Unicamp, with 870, turned out more that any North American university. The average number from the University of California in Berkeley was 769 PhDs compared with 702 from the University of Texas, in Austin, and 664 from the University of California in Los Angeles.

Another well-known problem is how few opportunities there are still for Brazilian trained and educated PhDs in the Brazilian production sector. Of the total number of Brazilian scientists just 23% (fewer than 20,000) carry out research in industrial laboratories, while in South Korea and the United States, for example, 54% (94,000) and 80% (790,000) of the scientists, respectively, are employed in industries to develop innovative products and processes. “There are two equally important challenges: to provide even more training in universities in basic science and in developing people and to accelerate training in applied research and technological development in companies”, said Brito Cruz from FAPESP.

Brazil as an innovator
Demos, an English strategic studies organization, has published a report that draws attention to the vitality in Brazil’s science, technology and innovation panorama. Signed by researcher, Kirsten Bound, the document Brazil, the natural knowledge economy suggests that the country, the innovation strength of which is still strongly linked to exploring its natural resources, already has diversified knowledge in areas such as biofuels, genomics and software, which form the “natural knowledge economy” in the report’s title. The text highlights positive facts and indicators, such as Brazil’s 15th place in the world rankings of academic production and the growth in research budgets, all within an environment of political and economic stability.

Bound discusses why Brazil is little known by the developed world. The causes are how little the country boasts about its advances and also the fact that Brazil, which was colonized by Europeans, is not seen as a threatening culture, like those of India and China.

The report recommends that Brazil takes more advantage of the qualities it has. One of them is to broaden the discussion about controversial topics, like the tension between spending money on science or fighting inequality. The other suggestions are to organize an international support network of Brazilian scientists living abroad and thoroughly implement already existing public policies.