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Letter from the editor | 280

The horizons of science

Man’s arrival on the Moon captured the public imagination better than any other scientific or technological achievement in the modern era. The feat seemed so unattainable that, to this day, conspiracy theories abound that the entire event was faked by the US government in the midst of a space race against the Soviet Union.

Believe it or not, almost 50 years ago, the Eagle Lunar Module landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the visible side of the Moon, and two astronauts took their first steps—or leaps—on Earth’s only natural satellite. The achievement arose from a specific set of circumstances, including the political, military, and technological battle between the US and the Soviet Union, as described in one of this issue’s three cover articles celebrating the anniversary of the moon landing (see pages 18, 23, and 24). Inspired by human curiosity, space exploration fascinates people all over the world and unites three of the founding principles of science—discovery, understanding, and application of knowledge to achieve a particular end.

Nobody has set foot on the Moon since 1972, and now the USA wants to return, this time as part of an international collaboration. With a smaller budget than it had during the Cold War era, NASA is now working in partnership with the European Space Agency and Canada. Other nations have similar ambitions. China has recently been investing more in its space program and has plans to put an astronaut on the Moon.

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The not always easy relationship between research and society is touched on by several articles in this issue. In early May, São Paulo hosted the Global Research Council’s annual meeting, bringing together funding agencies from 45 countries. One of the topics on the agenda was how to respond to growing expectations among governments and the public to produce research results with economic and societal benefits. The demands are understandable, and the scientific community has a duty to address them, but it must also be careful not to impede the knowledge production process, the results of which are often unpredictable and can take a long time to materialize.

Astrophysicist France Córdova (who chose her profession after being inspired by astronaut Neil Armstrong), chairman of the National Science Foundation, the leading basic-research-funding agency in the USA, spoke at the meeting, stressing that the advancement of science depends on public funding and that agencies need be able to demonstrate to the public why a particular research project is important. Philologist Peter Strohschneider, who heads the DFG, a German research-funding organization, noted that research can have a diverse range of impacts, such as pushing the boundaries of knowledge, stimulating technological innovation, and developing professional skills. He warned that evaluating projects based on targeted impacts often restricts the scope of the research and can result in researchers attempting to align their proposals with the expectations of funding agencies or formulating projects specifically to solve known problems.

An article celebrating 30 years since Brazilian law guaranteed the financial autonomy and stability of the universities in São Paulo describes how the arrangement came to pass. The historical context of the redemocratization process, when the political agenda was highly focused on issues related to education, in combination with high inflation and the economic landscape of the time, made managing higher education institutions a constant juggling act, and ultimately led to the legal and budgetary agreement that continues to this day.

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