Brazil-US: The Love-in Resumes

In science – as well in as matters economic and diplomatic  – Brazil’s much interrupted love-in with the US,  looks safely back on track after years of prickliness.

Brazil’s science minister Aldo Rebelo is seeking to energize academic links with the United States as one means of boosting much-needed technological innovation, into the bargain countering his country’s poor citation and impact record in academic journals, despite his country’s significant spending on R&D of around one percent of GDP.

On a visit to Washington in late May, Rebelo took along with him Luis Fernandes of the federal government’s research funding agency FINEP, and Armando Milioni, undersecretary for technological development and innovation at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Jorge Kalil of São Paulo’s Butantan Institute was also part of the Brazilian delegation.

Brazilian Science Minister Rebelo: "bold cooperation"

Brazilian Science Minister Rebelo: “daring cooperation”

The team was in the US capital to breathe warm tropical air into the regional relationship after a period of frostiness sparked by barely-covert surveillance from US intelligence agencies of Brazilian government communications. This led to the angry cancellation of a September 2013 White House visit by President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil also rankled at US criticisms of its own somewhat eccentric diplomacy, which has included bizarre shows of  support for Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro.

Now, all is harmonious again after Rousseff’s visit to the US capital June 30th. Dilma and Obama positively cooed friendship and bilateral goodwill, as you can see from a video of their joint press conference in Washington. He said “the cornerstone of US engagement in Latin America is our partnership with Brazil.” This is the youTube link.

You can read a science and technology-related excerpt of the detailed  report on bilateral cooperation issued by the White House following the talks, by clicking here . News reports showed  both Rousseff and Obama were keen to show that any bad feelings caused by  NSA snooping and Brazil’s angry response to it, were now behind them.

In addition to political meetings in the US capital, President Rousseff was to visit California for meetings in the high tech and academic sector. In addition to visits to NASA and  Google, she  visited Stanford University and the University of California. You can read a Portuguese language news report about prospects for the trip by clicking here.

When the US and Brazilian leaders met in Panama City in April, they said science and technology would form an important topic during the Rousseff visit to Washington.

President Rousseff was reported as saying: “Science and technology, education, as well as all manners pertaining to economic growth are just examples of what we can do together to improve and boost the quality of our economic activity, which is key for Brazil and which I think will help us elevate our relations to a higher threshold than it is currently today.”

At a meeting of the US-Brazil Innovation Forum in Washington May 27th, organised by the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, Rebelo proposed a “relaunch” of cooperation with the United States with what he called a “more daring, more precision and greater ambition in the fields of science, technology and innovation.” He called for industry to respond to the demands of society in both nations.

Other speakers at the event included Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary for Economic Growth   Energy and the Environment a the US State department, and Dr John Holdren, adviser to President Obama on Science and Technology.

Certainly, the trip has provided an opportunity for private sector investment. Under Secretary Novelli delivered a speech reminding Brazilians of the growth in commercial partnerships in innovation.

She said a number of America’s most innovative companies are investing heavily in Brazil. GE last year opened a US$ 500 million global R&D center in Rio de Janeiro that will focus initially on the energy sector. Companies like 3M, Baker Hughes, Dell, Dow, DuPont, FMC Technologies, Google, GM, Halliburton, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Monsanto, Motorola, Visteon, and Whirlpool all have operated or announced R&D centers in Brazil.

This year, Boeing and Brazil’s Embraer opened a joint research center in São Paulo to research aviation biofuels.

Nevertheless, the US still feels Brazil has some catching up to do – both in terms of decreasing its commercial bureaucracy – and in raising the levels of academic cooperation.

Studies show that Brazilian scholars produce around 2.7 percent of the world’s academic papers. However, because relatively few are co-written with international authors, the impact is less significant on a pro-rata basis than less wealthy neighbouring countries like Peru and Argentina.

Recent studies have shown that international collaboration is becoming increasingly important for the advancement of science and technology. A survey of papers published between 1996 and 2012 in eight disciplines found those with international participation fared much better.

Certainly, the U.S. –Brazil Science and Technology Joint Commission is working hard to make up lost ground. Under-Secretary Novelli said areas for fruitful collaboration are: renewable energy, greenhouse gas monitoring, a new synchrotron light accelerator in Brazil, biomedicine, and smart grids.

Climate Change studies: area for US-Brazil cooperation

Climate Change studies: area for US-Brazil cooperation

For example, in the area of renewable energy, Brazilian and U.S. scientists are working together   to help industry to bring electricity to those in rural areas who are not connected to the grid. On the environmental side, U.S. and Brazilian scientists are working together to track deforestation rates using satellite imagery and airborne LIDAR. They are also studying the impact of climate change on the Amazon ecosystem.

The rapprochement with the US is a welcome sign that in one sense at least, the recent decline of Brazil’s economic fortunes and accompanying political misfortunes of the ruling PT Workers Party, have finally brought a climate of good sense back to Brasilia.

Gone is the strident nationalism and prickly sensitivity that characterised Brazil’s stance toward the US, matched by attempts to forge a ‘non-aligned’ diplomatic strategy in world affairs redolent of the 1970s. Ill-advised diplomatic initiatives in Iran, Cuba and Venezuela distanced Brazil from the US, while earning few reliable friends elsewhere.

Brazil has also looked at its own commercial balance sheet and decided that with dwindling sales of  iron ore and soybeans to China, its best hope lies in building a knowledge society partnered firmly with western industrial and technological interests, rather than continuing in a more servile role as commodity supplier of raw materials to China.

Certainly, reaction in the scientific community was cool to China’s recent offer to invest US$50 billion in Brazil, including building a road from Rio de Janeiro  across the Amazon and Andes to Peru.  While this road would help China access raw materials more cheaply, Brazilian scientists have warned against its environmental implications (you can read a related article  on the effect of  road building in Amazonia by clicking here), and there is little sense of commercial trust.

As Brazil’s interests pivot to the north, America beckons once again as a partner known, trusted and admired by most Brazilians.

So in place of Brazil’s decade-long period of brashness and ill-advised policies, comes a new  realpolitik led by Rebelo, himself a former left-wing nationalist firebrand who now speaks a new pragmatic language of scientific cooperation.

Hernan Chaimovich: Exemplary choice for top science post

Hernan Chaimovich: Exemplary choice for top science post

Rebelo’s choices to head up funding agencies CNPq and CAPES have been exemplary, while his recent decision to substitute a “biopiracy” law that had held up botanical and pharmacological research, has been widely praised.

Brazil may have been humbled economically, and its far-from popular leader Dilma Rousseff heads a lame-duck administration roiled by corruption allegations, but the mood music for cooperation with the United States has seldom sounded smoother, or the prospects fairer for scientists.

Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more