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Simon Schwartzman: The science critic

Former IBGE president analyzes the social impact of the provincial notions of Brazilian universities

LÉO RAMOSSociologist Simon Schwartzman is about to complete yet one more study about the state, impasses and prospects for Brazilian science. The first, Um espaço para a ciência (A space for science) resulted in a book that is indispensable for one to understand how Brazil’s earliest research groups were set up: A formação da comunidade científica no Brasil (The development of the scientific community in Brazil), first published in 1979, revised and published in English in 1991, and then reedited in Portuguese in 2001. In the early 90’s, Schwartzman belonged to a  group that produced work with international repercussions about new ways of producing knowledge (The new production of knowledge – The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies, coordinated by Michael Gibbons), which showed that contemporary science in more developed nations tended toward breaking the barriers between academic research and applied research, the world of universities, industry and government agencies, as well as among  traditional scientific disciplines. This approach, which implies  a deep reconfiguration of the way in which government agencies, industries, research centers and universities are organized, may provide a way out for many of Brazil’s impasses, as proposed by Schwartzman  after a broad study about the alternatives for scientific and technological policies in this country. His most recent work compares 16 groups and university research centers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, all of which, in different ways, combine high-grade scientific work with effective applications that are socially and economically relevant. At the age of 68, Schwartzman, now a researcher at the Institute of Studies about Work and Society (IETS – Instituto de Estudos do Trabalho e Sociedade), reviews in this interview the function of universities, which could be more active in leading innovation; he also reassesses the role of companies and recognizes the value of the  government`s contribution, a crucial agent of scientific and technological development, provided it stops being merely a financier of research and assumes the role of user and requester of scientific and technological knowledge.

What are the great lessons derived from this work, which compares the  strategies of the transfer of technology in  four countries?
We’re still at the stage of digesting all this material. In the four countries, to a greater or lesser extent, there have been major initiatives designed to strengthen academic science, through systems that evaluate and reward performance. Brazil was the country that advanced the most, thanks to the work of Capes – Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Ensino Superior (the Coordinating Office for the Upgrading of Higher Education Staff), which has historically held this role of setting standards, using scientific publications as  criterion of quality, evaluating courses, etc. This allowed the country to develop an important postgrad education and university research system, the most advanced one in Latin America. Now, however, it’s beginning to feel the limitations of its exaggerated emphasis on type 1 scientific work, which is more academic. Mexico established a similar system, through the Padrón Nacional de Posgrado (National Postgraduate Standards), added to the previously established Padrón de Excelência para la Ciencia y Tecnologia (Science and Technology Excellence Standards) of Conacyt, its National Science and Technology Council. Chile and Argentina have less developed systems. Chile created a system in which the universities are more strongly driven to find their own resources. They have to charge annual fees and they don’t get all their money from the state, regardless of whether they are public or private. Argentina is a bit different, because it hasn’t put in place a deliberate strategy of looking for external resources in the market, unlike Chile; but it also hasn`t developed a public support system as strong as Brazil’s or Mexico’s.

What examples would you highlight in each country?
In Brazil, the IT Department of PUC-Rio (the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro). It’s a pioneering group that was involved with the project of creating the first computers here. PUC used to get public funding, but now it hasn’t received anything for many years and has to find funds in the market. And it does this thanks to the scientific competence it has accrued over the years. Of Brazil’s private institutions, it’s probably the most advanced one from the standpoint of scientific and technological research, and within it, the IT area is probably one of the most outstanding. PUC is fairly aggressive (in the American, rather than Brazilian, sense of the word) where looking for resources is concerned, as it enters into agreements and works as an incubator for companies. Another interesting example is the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV – Fundação Getúlio Vargas). Its postgrad economics program, one of the most important  in Brazil, has a very strong system of academic incentives and all of its professors are highly rewarded for publishing work in high grade international journals. On the other hand, FGV also engages in fund raising, through other sectors, such as the Brazilian Economics Institute (Instituto Brasileiro de Economia) and in particular through its extended education courses, whose recognition is derived largely from the prestige of its postgraduate school. However, FGV keeps the two things separate: those who are in the postgrad program don’t have to look for funding elsewhere; and those who go looking for funding are not normally in this program. We can compare this situation with that of the Center for Mathematical Modeling of the University of Chile. This is a high-level group in the field of mathematics, with the status of a CNRS (National Scientific Research Center) lab in Santiago. They do applied work in mathematical modeling in fields connected with copper leaching, a separation process that uses a type of bacteria, and there’s a whole issue regarding mathematical models about the genetic variability of these bacteria. Depending on the bacteria’s development, productivity can be greater or smaller. From the mathematical point of view, this calls for novel research that lies somewhere on the border between molecular biology and mathematics. These applications are very important, as Chile is one of the world’s greatest copper producers. Codelco, the Chilean Copper Company, finances the project. They are, at one and the same time, producing cutting-edge scientific knowledge and applied work. This is the example we should follow: a combination of research and application – one thing is not the opposite of the other. Frequently, people in academia fear having to look for funding through projects with external partners, as if this would lead to a loss in the quality of academic work. In some cases this actually happens, but the Chilean case is a good example where not only does it not occur, but the two things encourage each other.

How did they manage to achieve this?
First, they have to. The available resources  there don’t allow them to make much progress without external funding. At the same time, they maintain academic control over the work. They don’t accept just anything, they have their own criteria and the work must have innovative intellectual content. We asked a young researcher how he managed to combine the two things, academic work and applied work, to which he answered: “We work twice as hard”. One of the points all the cases have in common is that they have to set their own relationship rules regarding the non-academic world. And this has to do with the flow of money, with how they receive and manage resources, with autonomy where selecting the people for the work is concerned? The researchers in these groups, especially their leaders, are very entrepreneurial; they are always pursuing something greater, a world that isn’t only that of academic research. Another common characteristic is the need for strong academic leadership. This is the case of the chemistry group at Unicamp, the State University of Campinas, headed by Fernando Galembeck, who has an excellent scientific education and a lot of experience in the field of applied work, in addition to having taken out a number of patents.

Are the other countries also concerned about patents?
Only on a few occasions did this subject arise as something important. It’s a paradox, because one tends to imagine that patents are the high point of applied research of industrial interest. One of the core problems is the registration process and especially the costs of maintaining and protecting patents. If someone uses the patent without paying for it or registers a similar one, one has to go to court to safeguard one’s rights in Europe, the USA, or Asia, depending on the case. The cost of an actual patent can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. So who’s going to take one out? A large firm with clearly defined commercial interests. Without a strong commercial partner, the patent is useless. As these outward  links are weak, patents aren’t actually transformed into profitable products, or only very rarely.

Comparatively speaking, how does Brazil stand?
Academically speaking, where publications are concerned, Brazil has advanced a lot, but not that much from the standpoint of applications, of using science. Generally speaking, our incentive system is still very academic. Take the case of Capes, an institution that everybody regards as highly successful, but that is getting close to exhausting its model: its set up is designed to recognize academic work, it has a lot of trouble providing support for interdisciplinary areas and it discourages any type of activity that involves a benefit connected to results, with applications. Capes tries to rank all of the country’s postgrad programs within a unified and coordinated evaluation system, but this system is starting to unravel. Brazil still hasn’t managed to make any progress where the awarding of professional master’s degrees is concerned, although they are the predominant kind worldwide, simply because these programs wouldn’t do well in the Capes evaluations. On the other hand, there are a lot of postgrad courses that, in order to avoid the Capes system, call themselves continuing education courses, or MBAs. Capes is a federal agency, but state universities are autonomous; they don’t need to be evaluated by Capes and they can enter into agreements with foreign universities to provide advanced courses and research without undergoing the Capes evaluation. Furthermore, we have international institutions that offer courses and academic titles through  long distance education, or that are establishing themselves in Brazil? We have to move forward, not in the sense of abandoning quality research, but of creating stronger incentives for institutions to build links and cooperation agreements, and to look for added funding, among other reasons because the scale of funds that an institution may have depends a lot on its own capacity to be valued overseas. I headed IBGE, the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute, for five years and I discovered that IBGE, like Ipea [the Applied Economics Research Institute], was not listed as an institution in the Ministry of Science and Technology’s surveys. It had an annual budget of about US$ 500 million for its ongoing activities, not to speak of a far greater budget during periods when the census was conducted. Is this or is this not research spending on social sciences? The quality of IBGE’s research could be much better, because at present it doesn’t really think like a research institute, but as a bureaucracy that produces data, an old idea. It’s high grade staff is only small, whereas it has a bureaucracy of thousands of employees spread all over the country. With the same resources or even less, plus the appropriate institutional reform, it could take a quantum jump and advance a lot in terms of the quality and relevance of the work it produces regarding crucial issues such as poverty, inequality, the job market, migrations, health, national accounts, and  many other subjects.

The third Pintec [Industrial Research on Technological Innovation], released in July, showed that the number of innovative firms didn’t grow much from 2003 to 2005; only one out of every three in 91,000 Brazilian firms engages in some sort of R&D activity. At the same time, a survey conducted by Fiesp [the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo] shows that 80% of the state’s firms are not aware of the lines of support for innovation, and that 70% of them use their own funds. How should  these results be interpreted?
A common complaint from the business area is that it’s very complicated to use the government’s innovation funding. As the procedures are slow and one doesn’t know when the money is going to be released, many firms feel it’s not worth the effort. If innovation financing is highly subsidized, there is the risk that firms will get the money and use it for other purposes. Another issue is motivation,  the necessity for companies  innovate.This issue doesn’t belong to the realm of science, but of economics. Some firms compete in the world based on innovation and efficiency, whereas others work on the basis of quantity, lowering prices, because they can get cheaper labor, and they are unable to compete at a higher technological level. It’s also important to say that the main high technology firms in Brazil are multinationals whose R&D labs are abroad. Many multinationals are scattering research centers around the world, but Brazil hasn’t been chosen much due to its lack of personnel,  a suitable environment and, among other things,  personal safety for its researchers.

Do you see any possibility of this overall picture changing?
I don’t expect much and I don’t believe that dynamism will come from the business sector. The bulk of this dynamism must come from the public sector, whose purchasing capacity is very large in fields that require intense and permanent research and innovation work, such as energy, the climate, natural resources, the environment, healthcare and the entire social area. In the United States, for instance, social research has developed greatly in connection with the attempts to implement public policy in this area. This has  already happened in Brazil to some extent, and some of the federal government’s sectors maintain their own research centers, such as Embrapa, the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, Ipea, Inep [the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research], IBGE, CTA [the Aerospace Technical Center] and others, all of which regularly hire research to provide support for their work.?

Is the public sector  as  demanding as it could be?
Not yet, and one of the problems is that the researcher does not always say what the  hiring party   wants. The hiring party who wants someone that will evaluate and legitimize its projects will chose someone it knows won’t say anything disagreeable. This may alienate more independent researchers and research centers and lead to the development of centers and of research groups that produce overly financed, poor quality work with little credibility. Research centers have to be truly independent rather than totally controlled, directly or indirectly, by their clients so that hiring processes are public and transparent.?

What can be done to improve this situation?
Concerning academic research centers, it’s important to develop incentive systems that will favor the application and the search for results, rather than only academic quality criteria. The university foundations, which exist within USP and in many public universities, are an interesting way to build more effective links with the outside world. There is a movement, to my mind highly reactionary, that is trying to do away with these links, arguing that public universities shouldn’t get money from anywhere other than their own budgets and that professors mustn’t supplement their pay. It ought to be the other way round. A competent IT professor that can make important contributions shouldn’t earn the same as a professor of history, geography, sociology or political science, which is my field. The market is different. Either universities provides these people with the same sort of advantages that the market would give them, or they will lose them. These changes envisage real university autonomy in the personnel and remuneration areas, which aren’t always the way they should be.

As you yourself wrote in a recent article, the university reform finished before it ever got off the ground. Why is it that sometimes  prospects for change seem so difficult and remote?
You must be referring to Tarso Genro’s reform project, which was very poorly conceived, having elicited a lot of reactions, and which in practice seems to have been abandoned by minister Fernando Haddad. At the time of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, Paulo Renato de Souza, as the Minister of Education, tried to deal with the issue of public universities, giving them more autonomy and responsibility for the quality of their results and the appropriate use of resources. There was a very strong reaction against this and nothing was done. At the time of Itamar Franco, everyone in the universities liked the minister of Education, Murilo Hingel, who always praised the universities but had no policy for the sector. The current government also does a bit of this. The Lula government has an explicit policy of increasing resources for public universities; at the same time, it weakened the sector’s chief evaluation tool, the old provão (“big test”). The federal government’s chief policies for higher education have been in the area of social inclusion, through race quotas and through ProUni, the University for All Program. In both cases the expansion of access has been carried out with no policies designed to ensure the quality of the courses and the capability of the students to make up for their educational deficiencies and complete their courses. Now there’s beginning to be some concern about this, and some interesting experiences, such as the attempt, in certain federal universities like the Bahia State one, and the new ABC federal university, to introduce a format similar to the European Bologna process, that postpones the point at which students who enter higher education have to make a professional choice. Brazilian public universities are small relative to the country’s needs, cost a lot of money in terms of spending per student, lack a clearly defined quality control system and subsidize a lot of middle and upper class students who could afford to pay for their education. However, almost 80% of Brazil’s higher education is private, with both good and bad aspects, and there are no positive policies for this sector, just the permanent suspicion that it isn’t legitimate and shouldn’t exist. One must start discussing in greater depth why we are financing the entire system, what we should expect from public universities, including those that concentrate on research, and what is the role of higher private education. Governments have been complacent and prefer to meet short-term requirements without making waves, rather than thinking about a long-term project.

What is your take on the issue?
I currently see no serious attempt to deal with research or higher education issues. Many researchers’ ideas about scientific policies are limited to putting pressure on the government to provide more money for their projects. But money alone is not enough. In Europe and in many Asian countries, there’s a major movement toward concentrating research resources in some universities that  reach international standards of quality in their research, innovation and training, and that can work as a benchmark reference for the others and a real bridge to the scientific and intellection production in the rest of the world. In Brazil, USP could play this role, due to its budget and its mass of quality human resources. But, for instance, if we look at the famous ranking of universities published by the Jiao Tong University in China, USP, which is the best in Latin America, appears in  102-120 position; in other words, it has no international standing. In Brazil, at present, there’s no deliberate policy aiming at excellence, whether in  the government of the state of São Paulo or of the federal government; and there are many who think that talking about excellence and about competing for quality is not politically correct. Universities that have high standards of excellence attract talent, resources and knowledge from everywhere, and create international circuits of contact and prestige for their country. Why don’t institutions like USP or Unicamp open their postgrad programs more to students from other Latin American countries’ One of the reasons is that, as they are public, they have no means of charging these students for their tuition . They also might not be clear about how to select these students, because the selection is entirely in Portuguese and formal. The entire system is very inflexible. The international dimension ends up being lame because we have a very provincial and closed idea of what a university is.

Now tell us about your own education, please, and how you have developed this view of Brazilian science and of  higher education in Brazil.
I graduated in the city of Belo Horizonte, in 1961, and spent two years in Chile at Flacso, the Latin American School of Social Sciences. Most of the professors there were European and students came from all over Latin America. That was my first contact with modern sociology. I returned to Brazil in early 1964, but was arrested, accused of the crime of subverting the minds of youth. When I went to Chile I was a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and when I got back they gave me the responsibility of teaching political science. I gave two lessons and was arrested. Before traveling I had taken part in the student movement of 1959 and 1960.

How long did you stay in prison?
One month, more or less, not knowing what was going to happen, whether there was going to be a lawsuit? One month after they let me go, I left the country and went to Norway. One of my professors in Chile had been Johan Galtun, a Norwegian researcher who invited me to work with him at an institute he headed in Oslo. I spent one year there and another year in Argentina. Afterwards I went to the United States to do a doctorate in political science. Up to this time, my themes were mainly politics, political parties and political system, and international systems. I did my doctorate at Berkeley and my thesis was published under the title of São Paulo e o Estado Nacional (São Paulo and the National State); it was later revised and published as Bases do autoritarismo brasileiro (The foundations of Brazilian authoritarianism). During the 70’s I worked for FGV, at Iuperj [the Social Sciences Research Institute in Rio de Janeiro], from where I moved to Finep [the Studies and Project Finance Agency]. That was when I started getting involved with science and technology and when the idea of doing historical research about Brazilian Science occurred to me. This was later published as a book, Formação da comunidade científica no Brasil (The Establishment of the Scientific Community in Brazil). With Finep funding, I got a good team together and we interviewed about 70 researchers and leaders from the main research institutions in Brazil for several hours. At the time, we brought one of the main international experts in the field of studies regarding science, sociologist Joseph Ben-David, with whom we discussed our project at length and who left us a very interesting text about Brazilian science, which can be found on my website ( It was an opportunity to look at  international literature about the history and sociology of science and to do a broad survey of what was already available in Brazil on this subject. At that time there was a lot of resentment, mistrust and hostility between scientists and the military regime. But José Pelúcio Ferreira, Finep president at the time, had a totally different view and a lot of interest in getting exiled scientists to come back to Brazil and strengthen its institutions. On the other hand, there  was  already some  discussion about the subject of applied vs. non-applied science and the autonomy of scientific work. Pelúcio’s view, as an economist, was highly applied. The very project designed at the time for the Science and Technology sector, which reflected his strong influence, was like that. CNPq, which was an organization linked to the Office of the President of the Republic, was transformed into the National Scientific and Technological Development Council and, together with Finep, it was transferred to the Ministry of Planning. There was an idea that  science is part of planning , therefore, as the economy should be planned, science also should.

Did you like this point of view?
No. I have never believed in planning the economy and even less in planning science. To have science one must have a free scientific community. It must be free, academic, and have independent institutions. In his studies, Ben-David clearly showed that was how western science developed. Besides him, Robert Merton, one of the chief names in American sociology, had developed an idea of science as a free community of scholars; this was a contradiction to  attempts to attach science to the political regimes that, in the 30’s and 40’s, tried to bind science to authoritarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, at first, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, afterwards. These authors were opposed to the tradition that one might call Bernalistic, after John Desmond Bernal. He was an Englishman who developed original research in the field of crystallography and who actively contributed to the war effort of his country against Germany. He was fascinated by the Soviet Union, which he cited as a major example of how one can put science at the service of society. Concerning this, he followed the tradition of Jean Perrin, a French physicist and Nobel Prize winner, who together with Irène Joliot-Curie, was responsible for organizing the French scientific system during the Front Populaire period of the 30’s. Science, according to them, must stay within the State, at the service of planning, and help organize society in accordance with scientific criteria.

These are two radical views…
And totalitarian too. Bernal has a famous book, Science in History, in four volumes. In three of them he produced a very interesting history of science whereas the fourth volume was dedicated to showing how the Soviet Union was the apex of applied social science. Many famous Brazilian scientists, especially from the generations that were educated during the 40’s and 50’s, adopted the ideas of Bernal and Perrin and were active militants in the communist movement, the best known one was Mario Schenberg. I never saw any texts in which these scientists discussed these issues explicitly; they were things they regarded as natural. Their views of science were Socratic: “The scientist is the one who’s going to govern”. Their conflict with the military was less of a conflict about the role and place of science within society and more about the recognition of the role they ought to play in the planning system. The objective of the research about the Brazilian scientific community, reflected in the very title of the book, was to redeem the importance of the notion of an autonomous “republic of science”, which nevertheless would not be isolated or indifferent to what went on in society. Science can be useful, it should be important and applied, but we have to have science with freedom as the starting point, science with autonomy, with the capacity to have independent universities. Economists have always looked at science from the productive point of view, lacking a more sociological view about how science is organized, how institutions are created. In the 70’s there was a genuine intention to bring scientists back, to strengthen postgrad studies and research. In 1979, when the Geisel government came to an end, Pelúcio left Finep and so did I. In 1985, with the political opening, I took part in a presidential commission that was meant to propose a reformulation of Brazil’s higher education and that produced the earliest ideas about the evaluation and effective autonomy of universities; those were controversial propositions promptly filed away by the Sarney government. In the late 80’s I was invited to take part, together with Eunice Durham, in the establishment of the Center for Research into Higher Education, at USP, when José Goldenberg was the university’s president. At that time I began studying more of what was going on in higher education and research abroad. My participation in the group that prepared the book about the new production of knowledge and the coordination of the team in charge of proposing a new scientific and technological policy for Brazil dates back to this time. The proposals, as is often the case, were never implemented by the Ministry of Science and Education, which had financed the study. In 1994 I became president of IBGE, where I remained for five years. That was when I started to become more conversant and involved with the issues of social inequality, poverty and social policies, as well as with the problems of elementary education. Those are the themes that currently interest me the most.