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quinta-feira, 17 de junho de 2010

A ciencia brasileira nas paginas da Nature

A mais prestigiosa revista de pesquisa científica do mundo, a inglesa Nature, publica duas matérias -- uma avaliação de conjuntura e uma entrevista com o ministro da área -- sobre os avanços da pesquisa científica no Brasil.

Anna Petherick
Nature, Vol 465, June 2010

As President Lula prepares to leave office, researchers expect that innovation will invigorate the economy.

It is rare that a head of state ends a second term with approval ratings of around 80%. But when Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took to the stage last month at a science-policy conference, his popularity was clear: more than 3,000 scientists, administrators and industrialists stood to applaud him and to cheer his science minister of five years, Sérgio Rezende.

With a government convinced that science is an essential part of a growing economy, Brazilian researchers have never known better times, and the 4th National Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation in Brasilia on 26–28 May was brimming with optimism for an even sunnier future. At the conference, Lula signed a series of bills that will help to sustain his legacy of science investment after he and Rezende leave office on 1 January 2011. The bills, IF enacted by the National Congress, will increase funding for postdocs and establish three new biodiversity research centres, with the overall goal being to further reduce the country’s brain drain and perhaps even reverse it.

The conference will deliver a consensus statement from Brazil’s top scientific brass on where its research programme should focus over the next decade. The document is likely to be influential, says Luiz Davidovich, a director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The conference is the first time that those at the heart of science, and those tangentially involved, have all been brought together — and at a point when things are really taking off,” adds Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the scientific director of FAPESP, São Paulo’s state research foundation. The consensus statement, due to be published in two months’ time, will be sent to all of the presidential candidates.

One prominent suggestion expected to be in the statement is the fostering of centres of excellence. “We need to look after our Pelés as well as build more football pitches,” says de Brito Cruz. “The current focus of funding is on new centres, but there is no specific programme to fund research stars.” Another proposal is to provide more incentives for multinational companies to conduct research and development in Brazil.

These policies would build on a well-funded foundation. The Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology says that after Lula took Office in 2003, total public and commercial funding for science and technology soared from 21.4 billion reais (US$11.4 billion) to 43.1 billion reais in 2008 (or from 1.26% to 1.43% of Brazil’s growing gross domestic product; GDP) – due in part to Lula, and to policies implemented by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Publications by Brazilians in peer-reviewed science journals have leapt from 14,237 in 2003 to 30,415 in 2008, according to data analysts Thomson Reuters. This is impressive not only in the context of Latin America but also compared with Russia, India and China, for example. In 2000, Brazil generated 43% of Latin America’s peer-reviewed publications. Scientific output has since improved across the region, but in 2008, Brazilian publications made up 55% of the total. Brazil has particular strengths in agricultural science; for example, in 2000, a consortium based in São Paulo became the first in the world to sequence the genome of a plant pathogen, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which destroys citrus crops.

Brazil spends significantly more per researcher than China or Russia, according to its science ministry. “I believe we have reached a point where the sector will grow organically,” says Rezende. “So the next person in charge will not have to do much.

“ Science is also doing well at the level of individual states, which provide a significant source of public funding, although efforts to boost science are patchy. Many states are looking to emulate wealthy São Paulo, which has the strongest scientific tradition. “There is an article from 1947 in the constitution of the state of São Paulo,” explains de Brito Cruz. “It says that 1% of all revenues of the state go towards research. No other science-funding agency in possibly the whole world has that kind of financial security and autonomy [from the federal government].”

The benefits of having significant funding separate from federal sources were felt most keenly in the 1990s, when Brazil’s government struggled with economic stresses such as hyperinflation. Science funding dried up elsewhere in the country, but researchers in São Paulo experienced much less disruption.

Recently, other states have copied this legislation. In addition, São Paulo’s three large state universities receive 9.57% of the state’s income from its lucrative sales tax, giving them a unique boost.

But even in São Paulo, the growth in published research has not been matched by growth in patented research, which is crucial if science is to invigorate the economy and provide a better quality of life for Brazil’s 193 million inhabitants. Most scientists at the May conference agreed that solving this problem is probably the biggest challenge facing Brazilian science.

Early in its tenure, Lula’s administration made it legal for the government to fund research by private companies, and afforded tax breaks to firms that invest in innovation. But the number of patented inventions coming out of Brazil has risen only slightly since these measures were passed. “The problem is that company directors have the option of putting money in the hands of their heads of finance to generate a return in the financial markets, or in those of their head of research and development, which is risky and expensive,” says Eduardo Viotti of Columbia University in New York, who advises the Brazilian senate on science policy. “In the past, at least, it has seemed less risky to them to bet on the financial markets.”

Commercial research and development is being boosted by the discovery in 2007 of large oil deposits off the coast of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. When oil does start flowing, Lula has promised that a proportion of the riches will be siphoned towards science. The exact percentage is still being debated, but it will be set before Lula and Rezende leave office.

The chances are good that scientists will get much of what they ask for on their consensus wishlist, even after Lula’s departure. The frontrunners in October’s presidential election are José Serra, a former governor of science friendly São Paulo, and Lula’s former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, who is backed by Lula and is expected to continue his policies. These may include his plan to raise science spending to 2% of GDP by 2020.

Fonte: Interview by Fabio Pulizzi, Nature Materials, VOL 69, July 2010
Sergio Machado Rezende has served for 5 years as the Minister for Science and Technology of Brazil. Nature Materials has asked him about the past and future of science in his country.

How did you become interested in physics?

When I attended my first physics course in high school I was immediately fascinated by the rigorous formulation of classical mechanics and its ability to describe common phenomena through simple equations. Solving physics problems was really enjoyable for me. However, in the 1950s fundamental science did not really offer career opportunities in Brazil, so I decided to study engineering instead. After graduating in electronic engineering in Rio de Janeiro I went to MIT in the USA for my PhD. It was during this period that my interests shifted back towards the more fundamental, rather than applications-based aspects of the materials used in electronics, and gradually I became a materials physicist.

What made you decide to become active in politics as well as in science?

It was not really a deliberate decision, rather the consequence of my involvement with administration and policy making during my scientific career. After my PhD I went back to Rio, where I was appointed associate professor of physics at the Catholic University. In the early 1970s I moved to Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. I was in fact sent there on a mission of the National Research Council to establish a physics department that would be active in research at the Pernambuco Federal University. As I was the first faculty member in physics with a PhD degree, it was natural for me to become head of department. I was young and I learned to carry out administrative activities in parallel to research. In the 1980s I became dean of the Centre for Exact Sciences and in the early 1990s I was invited to become scientific director of the newly created Pernambuco Science Foundation, the first state agency to support science and technology in the northeast region. I managed to do the job in those positions while still remaining active in teaching and research. In 1995 I was invited to be the State Secretary for Science and Technology by Miguel Arraes, the elected state governor, even if I had no previous involvement with politics, and in four years I gained considerable experience in policy making and running science and technology programmes.

In your view, how has science in Brazil evolved in past decades?

Over the second half of the last century, Brazil built up a complex system of science and technology that today ranks thirteenth in the world in terms of scientific publications, according to the Thomson Reuters database, ahead of countries such as Holland and Russia. There are more than 100,000 active researchers in Brazil today, and we have a considerable number of scientists and engineers doing scientific and technological research of international standing. Among the best known examples of success in Brazilian research are the biofuels programme; oil drilling and production in deep waters by Petrobras; and agribusiness, where high productivity levels were made possible by work conducted by Embrapa, the federal organization for research in livestock and agriculture.

What about the time in which you have been science minister?

We need to keep in mind that building such a complex system and keeping it working required a huge effort. The scientific community lacked experience and there was no innovation culture; there were no steady science and technology policies, or substantial investments and, last but not least, there was almost no connection between research and industry. There were very difficult moments in which shortage of funds was such as to withhold fellowship payments for Brazilian students abroad. Fortunately, because of the firm priority given by President Lula’s government to science, technology and innovation in the past decade the situation has improved dramatically.

In what way? Have investments increased?

Definitely. In 2000, expenses for science and technology were of the order of R$15.2 billion (R$ is the Brazilian unit of currency, the real), equating to 1.3% of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) (at present US$1.00 = R$1.80). In 2008, investment surpassed R$43 billion, reaching 1.43% of GDP. These figures include the federal public sector, funding from single states and from public and private companies. The overall public-sector participation is 55%, versus 45% from companies. An important part of this funding is the National Fund for Scientific and Technological development (FNDCT), which nowadays is a prominent part of the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology. It was first established in 1970, but for a long time it suffered from chronic shortage of funds. However, in 1999 the previous government created the so-called sectoral funds, which are based on taxation of specific sectors of economic activity. These sectors include the exploitation of natural resources, oil and specific industrial products, and they include fees on licenses for the acquisition of foreign technology. Such sectoral funds are now an integral part of the FNDCT, and have made possible its consistent growth. To give you an idea, the FNDCT disbursed R$350 million in 2002; in 2010 the amount will reach R$3.1 billion.

Which areas of research will develop more as a result these investments?

So far Brazilian scientists have mainly contributed to extending the frontiers of fundamental knowledge and I believe this process will intensify further. Researchers are becoming more experienced, young people are being exposed to science of higher quality and the infrastructure for research is improving. And in applied science and engineering there will be an effort in all the areas that represent a priority at the international level. To list a few: biotechnology and nanotechnology; information and communication technologies; health; energy; agribusiness; biodiversity and natural resources; Amazonian and semi-arid regions; meteorology and climate change; space and nuclear research.

Have research institutes of excellence in these areas been created?

Partly. Three years ago the government launched a programme for the National Institutes for Science and Technology with a call for US$330 million to provide established centres of excellence with the means to strengthen their resources. But we have also created new institutions. One of them is the National Center for Science and Technology of Bioethanol, in Campinas, in the state of São Paulo, with the aim of improving technology for producing ethanol from cellulose. We also created a new centre for microelectronics, the National Center for Advanced Electronics Technology, in Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, and the Center for Earth Studies at the National Institute for Space Research in the state of São Paulo, for studies in global climate change. We extended a few centres that are under the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Science and Technology, for example the National Institute for Amazonian studies. But aside from creating new institutes and expanded existing ones, the real effort was to improve the general infrastructure for research, increase the number of researchers and provide them with appropriate conditions to produce good results. Part of this has been raising the salaries of scientists working in universities and in the research centres of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Brazilian researchers used to go abroad to gain expertise. Is this changing now?

It has already changed. It is important to clarify that only in the 1950s, with the establishment of federal agencies to support science, the National Research Council and the Commission for the Improvement of Faculty Personnel, did Brazil begin to lay the foundations for a scientific community. This was done mainly by granting fellowships for graduate studies abroad, primarily in the USA and Europe. The first MSc degree was created in Rio de Janeiro only in 1963, and it took several years to set up MSc and PhD programmes throughout the country. It is only natural therefore that the first generations of Brazilian scientists studied abroad. Nowadays, universities and research institutions are well equipped, there are excellent graduate programmes in many universities and the funding agencies offer fewer fellowships for graduate studies abroad. On the other hand, research experience in other countries is still considered very formative and graduates can easily obtain support for post-doctoral programmes abroad. The government also stimulates participation of young scientists working in ‘big science’, which requires huge investments and facilities to engage in international collaborations. For instance, we support participation in the research programmes of large American and European laboratories such as Fermilab and CERN for studying elementary particle physics, and large astronomical observatories such as the Southern Observatory for Astronomical Research, and Gemini in Chile.

Is there an effort to raise the number of undergraduate students in science?

Absolutely. The government launched a few programmes to stimulate the interest of science in schools. A classic example was the establishment in 2005 of the mathematics olympics for state schools only. Previously, only about 200,000 pupils per year would take part in such events, and they were mainly from private schools. State-school pupils did not feel confident enough so the government decided to create a state-schools-only competition. Ten million pupils participated in the first year and the number rose to 19 million in 2009. Programmes of this type stimulate interest in mathematics, and the best pupils can obtain fellowships and can keep studying the subject at a higher level. Of course increasing interest in mathematics contributes to stimulating interest in science and engineering as well.

You mentioned climate change: how will Brazilian science contribute in this area?

We should bear in mind that climate change is not just a scientific but also a political issue, with global economic, social and environmental consequences. Brazil has made its position on this matter internationally known, as well as its successful endeavours at reducing emissions and strengthening its scientific research capacity in this field. At the recent conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Brazil announced a voluntary commitment to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 37% relative to the ‘business-as-usual values’ in 2020. All this keeping in mind that Brazil is a relatively low-carbon-level society. Brazilian industry has had a record of low greenhouse gas emissions, and there is still room to maintain or even enhance this trend by increasing the use of renewable sources. According to data from the 2008 National Energy Balance, such participation is 45%, which means a clean energy matrix in comparison with the rest of the world average, which is 13%. An important part of this contribution is played by biofuels in transport. With the invention of flex-fuel cars, made by laboratories in Brazil, the use of ethanol from sugar cane has been increasing steadily and has matched that of gasoline. One of the largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions in the past has been deforestation, but impressive efforts have also been made at reducing such emissions — they fell by about 45% in 2009 compared with 2008. I am convinced that Brazil is on the right track, and it will contribute decisively to global endeavours to mitigate climate change. Regarding the scientific work in this area, we have established a large network of laboratories and research groups involved in all aspects of climate change science, such as climate modelling, emissions from land use and agriculture practices, biodiversity and natural resources, among others. This network is led by some of the most experienced scientists in Brazil, who have participated in international boards, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and have strong international collaboration.

You are obviously a very busy person. Are you still an active researcher as well?

I am in the sense that I keep thinking about physics; I follow the literature; try to give suggestions to colleagues and students; and I do some calculations, eventually publishing a few papers. But to be considered an active researcher at my age and with my experience I should be involved in many more topics of research that I am able to. I probably devote 10% of my energy and time to research, and this includes weekends, when I am most productive. It is not that much, but it allows me to keep in touch with the developments in the area that I am most involved, which is magnetic phenomena in nanostructured materials.

Will you remain active in politics, maybe still as a minister in the future?

I will definitely not stay a minister, regardless of who will be elected president next year. By 31 December 2010, I will have been heavily involved in science policy for 8 years as president of the Financing Agency for Studies and Projects for 2.5 years and as a minister afterwards. I think this is enough and I feel rewarded by the results achieved. I also have started to feel uncomfortable about spending most of the time away from home and family. Finally, I believe that a renewal of concepts, ideas and practices will be mostly beneficial for our scientific and technological system, to keep it healthy and make it progress further.
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