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The place for science and technology

Researchers debate Brazil in the society of knowledge

The last annual meeting in the 20th century of the SBPC, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, around the theme ‘Brazil in the Society of Knowledge’, kept the campus of the University of Brasilia busy during the week from 10th to 14th July.  “The countries that do not enter into the society of knowledge will be left behind”, said the SBPC’s president, Glaci Zancan, a biochemist from the Federal University of Parana.

At the meeting, the course of the science and technology policy in Brazil was assessed, and the advances of research and its relationship with companies, among other questions like the job market, the environment, and social policies. The big stars in the debates, however, were the project for the genetic sequencing of Xylella fastidiosa, carried out by Brazilian scientists, the implementation of sectorial funds for financing research, and the polemics over the permission for genetically modified food in the country.

Andrew Simpson, the coordinator of the Xylella Genome Project, was applauded by an audience of 400 persons, when he announced the publication of an article on the sequencing of the bacterium, on the cover of July’s issue of the Nature magazine, something without precedent for Brazilian science. “Now we are going to conclude the sequencing of other genomes, both in the area of health (Cancer Genome), and in the area of agriculture (Xanthomonas citri bacterium Genome and Sugar Cane Genome).

Sectorial funds
The approval by Congress of five sectorial funds for the financing of research in energy, water and mineral resources, space, and transport brought together an audience of hundreds of researchers and stirred up polemics. The Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of congress) is analyzing four more funds, for university / company interaction, information technology, telecommunications, and infrastructure. These funds will have an estimated income of R$ 1 billion a year, and will be made up of taxes paid by companies from various sectors of production and intended for research in their respective areas of activity.

Part of the scientific community is afraid that the implementation of these funds may result in a reduction of the Union’s budgeted resources for research. “It is important to make sure that they are additional resources”, says SBPC’s president. “The biggest advantage of the funds is that they create regularity in the release of resources for science”, says Humberto Brandi, a professor with the Physics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and president of the Brazilian Society of Physics.

The Executive-Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Carlos Américo Pacheco, guaranteed that “the sectorial funds are not going to replace other ways of financing research”, and, to reinforce his argument, he distributed amongst those present a booklet on the action of the funds and the results expected.

Reinaldo Guimarães, from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, warns that the model for management outlined for the administration of the funds may mean the lack of governance by the Ministry of S & T.  Having studied the profile of the groups that carry out research and technological development in Brazil, Guimarães called attention to the fact that 70% of the resources of each fund will go into technological development and 30% will be for scientific development.  “The demand for these 30% will come from the 90% of researchers who represent the installed capacity of basic research”, he says. That is, they may be an excessive supply of resources for areas where demand is still small, and, conversely, a shortage of resources for areas that require more investments.

“The part of fundamental research should receive a greater impulse”, warned physicist Roberto Salmeron, one of the founders of the University of Brasilia, who has been working for almost 30 years at the École Polytechnique, in Paris. Salmeron recollects that the new resources deriving from the funds are equivalent to what France sets aside for the CNRS, the National Center for Scientific Research. “If this mechanism of the funds works, it will be important, but it all should be done calmly and with better scientific planning, and priorities established on a national level”, is Salmeron’s criticism.

Transgenic plants
The cultivation, sale and consumption of genetically modified products continues to divide the scientific community over the issues of health, ethics and environment. The ABC, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and the SPBC defend different positions, but the SBPC’s president denies that there is any divergence with regard to transgenics. She argues that “nobody can be against the technique of transgenics”, but advocates the carrying out of tests locally, to assess the impact of the production of modified foodstuffs on the environment. “Because of the differences that there are between ecosystems, the tests done in other countries are not valid for the Brazilian biological reality.”

Science, politics, economy
Defending one of the few points of consensus amongst scientists, technologists, managers of research institutes, teachers and students, which is that Brazil needs to expand its capacity to invest in basic education so as not to jeopardize the important advances achieved at post graduate level, the Minister of Science and Technology, Ronaldo Sardenberg, stated that the so-called “lost decade”, as the 90s have been referred to, deserves more careful reflection. It was in this period, during which the crisis of the State deepened, that Brazil succeeded in improving specific indicators in the area of science and technology. In this period, he recalled, the number of doctors formed in Brazil quadruplicated, and the number of scientific papers published quickly increased.  “This has not happened by chance”, said Sardenberg.  “After all, science and technology is a vital, strategic, and central sector for Brazil”, he said, during a round table on the last day of the SBPC meeting.

A proof of the improvement of Brazil’s performance is the preliminary results of the CNPq’s Directory of Research Groups in Brazil. Researcher Reinaldo Guimarães, of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, showed that there are 11,613 research groups, based on 224 institutions, in regular activity in Brazil today. The 1999 version of the Directory of Research Groups recorded the existence of 8,44 research groups at work in Brazil. More than half the Brazilian research groups – 56% – carry out their activities in the southeastern region, with 6,581 located in the State of São Paulo.  The three public state universities house precisely 2,014 research groups (1118 in USP, 537 in  Unicamp, 359 in Unesp). The details, obtained directly from the research groups, reveal that the southern region contains 20% of the groups, in a total of 2,317. The northeastern region registers the presence of 1,719 groups, that is, 15% of the total of groups in regular activity.  In the region of the center-west, there are 669 groups, representing 6% of the total.  In the northern region, there are 327 research groups at work, or 3% of the total. “But it is evident that the concentration of groups in the regions that are stronger economically is a reality that is being perpetuated in our country”, stated Reinaldo Guimarães.

Investment in technology
The capacity for developing technological research at Brazilian universities is, however, jeopardized by the lack of funds to transform projects into products.  “This will only happen when there is a strong link between universities and companies, reinforced by an interest in state and municipal governments to work in partnership with the institutes”, reckoned Eduardo Krieger, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, in the debate on the challenges of innovation in the country. On companies’ side, there is somewhat fo a shyness in investing in new technologies, commented the president of FAPESP’s Senior Board, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, who coordinated the session of the SBPC at which the return from company investments was discussed. “Brazil has developed any excellent capacity for doing science, but is still not producing much technology.  The economic environment is hostile to business investments linked to research and development, which take time to show results”. And among businessmen, the culture of technological innovation is also precarious.  “Brazil has 77,000 researchers and only 11% of those are inside the companies.  In the United States, there are one million, but 80% are researching in private initiative”, he compared.  “And the place for producing innovation is inside the company”, he concluded.

Resources and regional distribution
The role of the FAPs, the State Research Support Foundations was one of the challenges related to the development of research and technology.  Among the motions voted and approved by the SBPC assembly, one of them asks for a FAP to be created in Goiás and for the FAP in Maranhão, closed in 1998, to be recreated again. For Ennio Candotti, a former president of the SBPC and a professor at the Federal University of Espírito Santo, “in the states, generally speaking, the prevailing view is that science and technology is something for the federal government”.  Candotti recollected that 12 years have already gone by since the state S & T systems began to work, and, even with the efforts of the Ministry of Science and Technology in implementing joint actions, these bodies “are marking time, awaiting the political parties and the associations that are really willing to implement them locally”.

São Paulo continues to be the solitary exception in the question of Research Support Foundations.  “In the state, for every real invested by the federal government, there is a contribution of one real from the state”, observed FAPESP’s scientific director, at a round table of the SBPC aimed at debating the financing of post graduate studies in Brazil. In the last few years, said Perez, FAPESP has handled 8,000 scholarships. This quantity is at the limit of the guidelines laid down by the Foundation, “which cannot be transformed into a scholarship agency, which would jeopardize its support for research”.  This record number of scholarships in the State of São Paulo is a consequence, in part, of the federal agencies like the CNPq and Capes being unable to meet this specific demand.

Nine motions were approved at the general assembly of the members of the SBPC held on the 12th.  The SBPC wants the PET, the Special Training Program, to continue, allowing university students to take part in 314 research groups.  Maintained by the Ministry of Education, PET was modified, after being threatened with extinction, and the government’s attitude displeased the scientific community.

The assembly of the SBPC also wants the contract signed between Bioamazônia, a social organization kept with the resources of the federal government, and the company, Novartis, for the exploitation of biodiversity in Amazonia, to be canceled.  “The National Congress needs to examine the bills on access to biodiversity”, declared Glaci Zancan. There are three projects on the theme with Congress, one drawn up by Senator Marina Silva (PT – Workers’ Party, left wing -Acre), another by MP Jacques Wagner (PT/Bahia), and the third on the initiative of the Executive Branch.

During the four days of the encounter, the amphitheaters of the UnB were filled with some 15,000 persons, according to the SBPC’s leaders.  Four thousand scientific works were presented, and the Young-SBPC, specifically intended to receive contributions from primary and secondary school pupils, attracted the attention of 3,000 participants. The 53rd Annual Meeting of the SBPC, in 2001, will be on the campus of the Federal University of Bahia, in Salvador.

Fapesp receives José Reis Prize at SBPC
The State of São Paulo Research Foundation was the winner of the 20th José Reis Award for the Publicizing of Science, offered by the CNPq, in competition with 33 other institutions. The award recognizes the work of broadcasting information on science and technology carried out by the Foundation, through the production of informative literature to distribute to the press in general, and the publication of the magazine Pesquisa FAPESP.  MAST, the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences of Rio de Janeiro, won honorable mention.

The award was given at a ceremony that took place on July 10th, presided by the Minister of Science and Technology, Ronaldo Sardenberg, at the 52nd Annual Meeting of the SBPC, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science.  It was the first time that the award-giving was carried out by the Minister of S & T.

“Through the intermediary of scientific journalism, the government and the academic community can render accounts to society of the use of public funds applied in science and technology, and of the progress achieved, and what this means in the daily life of each individual, each family, and of each social group”, pointed out Ronaldo Sardenberg.

On receiving the diploma and the medal for the José Reis Award, FAPESP’s president, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, recalled that this researcher and promoter of science, who continues his activities at the age of 91, writing every week in the Folha de S. Paulo, was one of those who advocated the existence of a foundation that should enjoy autonomy and a stable budget, in articles published in the 50s and the 60s.

“FAPESP’s concern in publicizing knowledge recognizes that science needs the support of the State, that is, it uses resources from the taxpayer.  A public agency should therefore be capable of constantly publicizing and showing society and the Executive and Legislative branches the achievements made possible with this support.”

The José Reis Award for the Publicizing of Science is Brazil’s most important in the area of publicity and scientific journalism. Maintained by the CNPq since 1978, the prize is granted annually, on a rotating basis, to one of the following categories: institution, journalists, and promoters of science.