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Under the sun of science

Unicamp attracts 12,000 people to the 60th Annual Meeting of the SBPC

EDUARDO CESARDuring a sunny week in July 12,000 people in Campinas took part in a scientific marathon that debated strategic topics of national development, like the future of ethanol and the challenges of innovation. The 60th Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Society for Progress in Science (SBPC) took place between July 13 and 18  in the same city that in 1949 housed the first ever get-together that would establish itself as the biggest scientific meeting in Latin America. While the meeting 59 years ago took place in the Agronomy Institute (IAC) the campus of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) was the venue for the 2008 meeting that comprised 7 general meetings, 80 lectures, 55 round-tables, 7 special sessions, 71 symposia and 43 mini-courses. According to the president of the SBPC, Marco Antonio Raupp, one of the positive results of the meeting was the discussion that took place in the thematic nuclei with topics such as ethanol from sugar cane, knowledge, development and technological innovation, global warming, biodiversity and conservation, experimenting on laboratory animals, scientific research and Brazilian legislation, education for science in elementary schools and public health: endemic diseases.

Of the 12,000 people who attended the event 6,264 were officially enrolled in the scientific program. Of this total, 2,020 were from the State of São Paulo. In 2nd place were the 375 participants from Pará, which hosted the SBPC meeting in 2007, followed by Minas Gerais, with 368 people enrolled. The general public was able to circulate freely in the gymnasium where more than 3,000 posters were on display with work by young researchers and science undergraduates. There was also a book fair with stands fm 25 publishing houses and a Science and Technology Exhibition (ExpoT&C), which had more than 60 exhibiters. FAPESP’s stand at ExpoT&C showed the public its main areas of activity and the programs and projects supported by the Foundation.

The thematic nucleus “Ethanol from sugar cane” was the one that attracted most attention, with talks, lectures and round tables on various aspects of biofuels led by well-known names, such as botanist Marcos Buckeridge (USP) and Isaías Macedo and Cylon Gonçalves da Silva (Unicamp). Also highly popular were the events arranged by the global warming nucleus, among which was the lecture by Carlos Nobre, a meteorologist from the National Space Research Institute (Inpe) and a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The president of Inpe, Gilberto Câmara, gave vent to his feelings as he explained the systems for monitoring deforestation in the Amazon which point to an increase in devastated areas this year, which has been questioned by the authorities. Câmara said that time will show that Inpe is right. “The relationship between power and science is very interesting”, he stated. “It’s not a relationship of equals, but the inequality changes over time. Over the short term power can prejudice science. In the long term, however, science is stronger. The truth will out and it’s not always pleasant for those trying to prejudice research.”

Obstacles to the development of science were also the subject of discussion. The need for creating legislation that regulates scientific experimentation on animals was discussed in various talks and round tables. The decline in interest by young Brazilians for courses in computing made for a lively round table discussion on “The future for computing and robotics”. Since 2004 there has been a decline in the curve of the number of undergraduate, masters and PhD students in the areas of robotics, engineering software and micro-electronics.  The only exception is the PhD work being done in micro-electronics, where the numbers have not changed. This is despite the growth in national scientific production in IT. According to Dante Barone, secretary of the SBPC, the theoretical nature of the curricula is a demotivating factor for students. “The official course content of faculties does not always include web design and specific languages and this also contributes to putting students off”, he says.

An ally
Two government ministers were at the meeting. Carlos Minc, from the Environment set out the main projects of his ministry and admitted that the demands made by Ibama (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) for allowing researchers access to environmental reserves are exaggerated. “Scientific activity cannot be seen as our adversary. In my opinion it is our main ally”, he said. The Minister of Science and Technology, Sérgio Rezende, announced the purchase of a super-computer for carrying out advanced simulations of global climate change. The system, which will be purchased through a partnership between the Studies and Project Funding Agency (Finep) and FAPESP, will be installed in the Weather Forecast and Climate Studies Center (CPTEC), in Cachoeira Paulista, in the Paraíba Valley. Rezende also announced the creation of 50 National Research Institutes over the next three years, which will substitute the Millennium Institutes of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). According to Rezende investments of R$ 270 million up to 2010 are being planned; this will be funded by the CNPq and Finep. Up to 30 institutes will be selected by official public announcement to operate in the following strategic areas: biotechnology and nanotechnology; IT and communication; health inputs; biofuels; renewable energy; oil; agribusiness; biodiversity and natural resources; meteorology and climate change; the space program; the nuclear program and national defense. The other 20 institutes will work on topics as and when there is demand for them.  According to Rezende, the initiative represents a transition phase in the federal system for promoting science and technology. “The Millennium Institutes achieved excellent results, but their resources are very limited. The National Institutes are going to substitute them and be more sustainable”, Rezende told the FAPESP Agency.

In the closing speech of the event the Dean of Unicamp, José Tadeu Jorge, praised the quality of the debates and said he was proud that the university had had the chance of hosting the principal Brazilian scientific meeting.  The governor of Amazonas State, Eduardo Braga, took part in the closing event with a speech on the science and technology system that has been successfully set up in Amazonas. “Without technology it’ll not be possible to implement the development necessary for overcoming the challenge presented by the Brazilian Amazon region”, said Braga, as he invited the scientific community to support the 61st meeting that will be held in Manaus, in July, 2009.