High Energy Guru Replaces Subtle Diplomat

Brazil’s best-known energy physicist will take over the country’s most effective research funding organisation, in a move that will further accentuate the primacy of São Paulo as the nation’s premier knowledge hub.

Against a backdrop of worsening economic recession, and tumbling research budgets  matched by declining trust in public institutions thanks to corruption scandals, this is good news for Brazil’s scientific community.

José Goldemberg, a veteran nuclear physicist and environmental specialist who is a professor of the University of São Paulo (USP) Engineering School’s Physics Department, was tapped by São Paulo state governor Geraldo Aclkimin to become president of FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation.

High energy physicist with  big public profile: Prof. José Goldemberg

High energy physicist with big public profile: Prof. José Goldemberg


Goldemberg will certainly build on a recent trend that has made FAPESP the most internationally-minded of Brazil’s big funding agencies. He has taught University of Illinois, Stanford University of Paris (Orsay) and Princeton University, as well as serving as chair of World Energy Assessment, a think-tank.  And in a nation where elitist academics tend to shun the media and popular science is widely eschewed, he’s arguably Brazil’s best-known public scientist.

Goldemberg holds a clutch of international awards for his work promoting alternative energy, and for his championing of Brazil’s world-leading ethanol industry. These include: The Blue Planet Prize 2008 of the Asahi Glass Foundation (Japan); the 2010 “Trieste Science Prize” of the Third World Academy of Sciences; and the 2013 “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Zayed Future Energy Prize.

Goldemberg has excellent political connections too, having served as secretary for the environment of the State of São Paulo between 2002 and 2006. He was also president of CESP the Energy Company of the State of São Paulo that operates a network of hydrodams.

The new president of FAPESP  inherits an organisation that’s been totally transformed and upgraded to become one of Brazil’s most respected institutions during the mandate of  the outgoing Celso Lafer, who has held the post since 2007 and is stepping down after two successful terms. A subtle diplomat with none of  Goldemberg’s scientific razzmatazz,  Lafer has nonetheless moulded FAPESP into a  by-word for  both international-standard academic rigour, and the ability to reach out to commerce and industry through partnerships.

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Subtle Diplomat: FAPESP’s Outgoing President Celso Lafer

Although FAPESP is a regional funding agency with an annual budget of some US$400 million that is barely one quarter that of Brasilia’s larger federal funding agencies CNPq and CAPES, it has become the “go to” institution for international partners and universities. Notably, it has achieved enviable financial stability thanks to endowment funding, allowing it to fund multi-year projects through its 17 CEPIDS or thematically-focused virtual centres of research.

Thanks to its professionalism, speed of response in grant-funding, and academic rigour that has made it the only Brazilian institution ever to “name and shame” wayward academics, FAPESP has built goodwill and trust across the globe through a fast-expanding network of higher education partnerships with institutions in more than 20 countries.

Since 2012 there’s been an international outreach programme of more than a dozen “FAPESP Weeks” held around the world. At these conferences hosted in prestigious institutions such as University of California Davis, Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center, Madrid University or London’s Royal Society, Brazilian academics debate with their peers.

And because it is charged with spending São Paulo state tax revenues with the aim of stimulating growth that will in time generate yet more tax revenues, FAPESP has worked to build applied research clusters with industry. The Foundation has research partnerships with leading international businesses such as Boeing, Microsoft, GSK, BG Group and AstraZeneca. It recently invested US$6 million to help kickstart a drug discovery research cluster at the University of Campinas, in partnership with SGC the Toronto-based Structural Genomics Consortium. Some of the drug discovery programmes part-funded by FAPESP are earning financial dividends.

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Multiple accords with industry: Lafer signs research partnership with BG Group

FAPESP has also funded some big-ticket scientific research equipment including a super-computer for weather forecasting, an oceanographic research vessel; a light synchrotron; a major programme of climate study in Amazonia including observation towers and aircraft; and now, multinational observatory projects in Chile. FAPESP is investing US$40 million to become a consortium member of the ELA telescope.

Although FAPESP is a regional institution responsible for investing a small portion of tax revenues from São Paulo state in research and knowledge acquisition generally, its visibility is on a par with federal agencies. Sometimes, in fact, it even serves as Brazil’s national representative in international scientific bodies, such as the Belmont Forum of national agencies committed to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Not content with simply funding all postgraduate comers, FAPESP under Lafer’s guidance began to focus its support on a few key areas that would best support Brazil’s transition to a knowledge society, while sponsoring further development and growth clustered around the main universities in São Paulo state. These are climate change, biodiversity and biofuels – with a strong emphasis on medicine, health and drug discovery.

Although not a scientist but a lawyer by training, Lafer has used his avuncular bonhomie, plus top-drawer diplomatic connections built up through a lifelong career in politics, to deftly promote FAPESP both within and beyond Brazil. He was served two spells as Brazil’s minister of Foreign Relations, as well as being former Trade and Industry minister. As well as coordinating the UN’s first major environment conference held in Rio in 1992, he represented Brazil both at the UN and at the WTO. During his FAPESP tenure, Lafer has collected a fistful of Honoris Causa degrees and prizes.

Former foreign minister Celso Lafer, now president  of FAPESP

Deft promoter of science: Former foreign minister Celso Lafer,

For over a decade, Brasilia’s left-leaning government has frequently positioned itself at loggerheads with São Paulo’s more right-of-centre regional administrations, causing plenty of public friction in the education and research policy space.

For example, the ruling PT’s costly “Science Without Borders” mobility programme mostly aimed at sending undergraduate students overseas, has been roundly condemned by FAPESP. It instead pursues the opposite strategy of using generous bursaries to attract highly qualified foreign academics to ‘Excellence Chairs’ or visiting professorships within Brazil, as being a more cost-effective means of deep knowledge transfer. With a federal government now beset by recession that is causing its promise to promote education to be revoked, FAPESP has become a rare  island of credibility for worried researchers and postgrad students alike.

Perhaps the most important transition that FAPESP has experienced  during Lafer’s tenure is the growth of a discipline and awareness of impact — the “scientific bang for every buck” invested in projects.  FAPESP has ruthlessly forced Brazil to confront the harsh fact that despite the now-considerable sums spent of  scientific research and development (the federal science budget – on pap

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