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The evolution of a good idea

Government relaunches program of virtual thematic networks, now with added funding and links with the states

BRAZA wide-ranging partnership agreement between the federal government and five state foundations for research aid (FAPs) is to earmark R$475 million over the next three years for the creation of the National Science and Technology Institutes, thematic networks of excellence to advance knowledge in fields that are vital for Brazil’s development, or in cutting-edge themes where domestic research rates highly. The funds available are the largest ever granted to a public notice for research aid in the country; half will be linked to 19 areas defined as strategic in the federal government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Action Plan, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, biofuels, agribusiness, the Amazon Region, the space program and climate change. The other half will provide aid for the best proposals submitted by researchers in any field. The precise number of institutes will depend on the quality of the proposals submitted and on the decision of the scientific committee charged with selecting the winners, but it is estimated that as many as 65 projects may be covered.

The National Science and Technology Institutes will replace the Millennium Institutes, an ambitious program launched in 2001, at the end of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration. The model was inspired by similar programs in Chile, China and India, all of which sought, on one hand, to articulate research groups and to leverage the laboratory base already in place and, on the other hand, to produce knowledge capable of improving Brazil’s economic competitiveness or  helping  solve major national problems. The World Bank was decisive for the launch, as it loaned R$ 90 million to Brazil for its projects. The winning projects were evaluated in 2003, already during the term of President Lula, who recommended that the program should continue. A new call for proposals was released in 2004.

One indicator that provides a measure of the performance of those awarded in the first call is that 10 out of the 17 Millennium Institutes approved in 2001 were renewed in 2004, in connection with themes such as basic research into nanoscience and the development of vaccines and diagnostic tests for TB. R$ 90 million was distributed through each of the two public notices, but the funds were diluted in the 2004 call, when 34 proposals were awarded some aid, compared to half that number in the previous call. “The current Millennium Institutes will continue to operate until the end of the year, when they will be evaluated, but our feeling is that with the fragmentation of funding, the impact was lower than that achieved via the first public notice,” says Marco Antonio Zago, chairman of CNPq, Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development .

The learning obtained through trial and error with the Millennium Institutes helped CNPq, which is in charge of the programs, to adapt the public notice concerning the National Science and Technology Institutes. The original idea was maintained: to try to leverage cutting-edge knowledge in vital areas and to encourage the establishment of research networks, led by a coordinator with renowned competence in the field. However, there are changes regarding the requirements and the running of the program. The main one concerns the larger funding offered and the link with the states. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) is to provide R$ 270 million, three times as much as it made available for the Millennium Institutes. Each project will be entitled to R$ 3 million to R$ 9 million for a three-year period, vs. R$ 500 thousand to R$ 2 million previously.

BRAZThe investment will be under the responsibility of CNPq (R$110 million) and Finep, the Studies and Projects Finance Agency (R$160 million), from the National Scientific and Technological Development Fund (FNDCT). Besides the ministry’s efforts, another R$175 million will come from five state research aid foundations, to invest in projects in their states, as follows: R$75 million from Fapesp, R$30 million from Fapemig (state of Minas Gerais), R$30 million from Faperj (state of Rio de Janeiro), R430 million from Fapespa (State of Pará) and R$10 million from Fapeam (state of Amazonas). Capes, the Coordinating Office for the Training of Personnel with Higher Education, which is linked to the Ministry of Education, will help with another R$30 million, in the form of grants of different kinds. “The Millennium Institutes achieved excellent results, but they have very limited resources. The National Institutes will replace them and have better sustainability,” stated the Minister of Science and Technology, Sérgio Rezende, when he announced the program in July.

Marco Antonio Zago highlights other changes, such as the fact that any given researcher will be prohibited from taking part in more than one network. “A scientist may even collaborate with more than one institute, but he or she may only be attached to one of them. This will ensure that this time we do not create networks with a huge number of researchers but in which many only hold an honorary role,” he said. The distribution of responsibility and funds among the associates will be more clearly determined, according to Zago. Each associated laboratory will be required to have a researcher in charge. “The idea is that the institutions join the networks because the financing will make a difference to them. That is why the target of the participants must be clear and also how much money each one will have so that we can demand results later on,” stated the CNPq chairman. “The availability of more funding allowed us to be more ambitious and demanding regarding the institutes. We want greater impact,” said Zago. In the Millennium Institutes, he noted, one could give grants to projects that did not demand strong articulation among the researchers. “Now, the need to establish networks is valued more highly,” he stated. The inclusion among the associated laboratories of research groups in new university campuses or in regions with a low density of PhDs is regarded as an advantage for the selection process. To guarantee the national character of the institutes, the funds will be distributed in such a way as to take advantage of the critical mass of the Southeast and South, without hurting the other states. The distribution of funds determines that the Southeast keep 50% of the pie, the South, 15%, and the North, Northeast, and Midwest, besides the state of Espírito Santo, 35%. This distribution has been criticized for going against the principle of scientific merit, given that the three largest states in the Southeast (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais) account for 80% of domestic scientific production, as measured by the number of articles published in internationally indexed journals.

The link with the state research aid foundations, says Zago, will be important not only to expand the volume of funds, but also to add to the program the expertise that these foundations have in selecting and evaluating proposals.

brazThe National Institutes, as established in the public notice released in August, will have to concern themselves with producing not only cutting-edge research but also training human resources and transferring knowledge to the productive sector and to society. The projects involving innovation or technological applications must fulfill a fourth mission:  the transfer of knowledge to the business sector or the government. The centers must also maintain science education and dissemination programs, conducted by their researchers and their grant holders, focusing on the improvement of high school education and on the scientific education of the population in general. Zago noted that this more widely encompassing character, whose components only surfaced slightly in the Millennium Institutes, was inspired in the Cepids, the Centers for Research, Innovation and Dissemination created by Fapesp in 2000. One of them, the CTC – Cellular Therapy Center is headed by Zago himself, who is a head professor at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo. “I was strongly influenced by the Cepids experience, as they assure substantial long term funding for some groups while also allowing them an uncommon degree of freedom. We are eight main researchers at the center and we don’t have to keep devising projects all the time in order to guarantee funding – the channel for requesting and getting resources is far simpler,” he states. The dissemination work of Cepids includes offering courses for high school students and teachers and encouraging small firms to incorporate research results.

The program of the National Science and Technology Institutes will last for five years. At the end of the first three, the time frame covered by the current call for proposals, the institutes will be required to undergo an evaluation and those that are operating satisfactorily may get further funding in order to run for another two years. “The ideal thing would be to provide the institutions with a longer life, but we can’t commit to more than three years. Additionally, other managers will be in charge of looking after the science and technology policy three years hence,” states Zago.

According to Hernan Chaimovich, a professor from the Chemistry Institute at USP, who was a member of International Scientific Committee responsible for selecting the winning proposals for the Millennium Institutes, the National Science and Technology Institutes have the potential to achieve those ambitious objectives outlined in 2001 that did not come true as well as expected. “The Millennium Institutes were part of a new paradigm of science and technology funding, based also on increasing those resources by means of the sector funds, but the government changed and the idea failed to continue along its original path,” he explains. He recalls that the scientific committee of the first public notice was even received by the President of the Republic, so certainly was everyone betting on the program. “In the second public notice, this didn’t happen.” Chaimovich considers, however, that the importance and responsibility of the National Institutes are greater than the targets of the Millennium Institutes. “The document justifying the creation of the institutions describes an unprecedented science and technology system that is sophisticated and has clear targets, unlike what happened in 2001. And the role of the institutes within this system has a position that is high up on a pyramid, at the base of which are the research groups and the centers of excellence. Whether this is going to work out, only a crystal ball can tell, but the chances of success are greater, among other reasons because we learnt a lot form the Millennium Institutes experience and from Fapesp’s Cepids,” says Chaimovich, who is the coordinator of the Cepids program.

The research groups connected with the Millennium Institutes’ programs share these expectations. Marcos Antonio Machado, a researcher from the Agronomical Citrus Culture Center, coordinated the Millennium Institute for Citrus Genetic Improvement, Functional Genome and Comparison from 2001 to 2004. For him, the launch of the National Technology Institutes consolidates an essential model for expanding the impact of Brazil’s research. “In our case, being part of the program allowed us to take a quantum jump in terms of quality and to open new work fronts. We ceased to be a group that did applied research into agriculture to join a network that produced contributions in basic science. The chief impact was that, for the first time ever, we had production that was internationally known,” he says. The network had 48 researchers from six institutions involved with mapping citruses, identifying the disease-resisting genes. CNPq will be receiving proposals from interested groups up to September 18. The selection should be completed in November.