NSF Inspires Brazilian Model

The wartime precursor of Washington’s National Science Foundation provided the inspiration for a model of organising and coordinating research activity adopted by Brazil, a conference of American academics has been told.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) forum on science and technology policies held 1st May in the US capital, Brazilian speaker Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz traced a brief history of how the organisation of scientific research in his country had evolved.

Brito Cruz who is Scientific Director of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), explained how, when it comes to organising research, much of Brazil’s past and present inspiration flows from American sources.

Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, inventor and science administrator who headed up the US Office of Scientific Research and Development that coordinated all wartime R&D (including the atom bomb), championed the post-war creation of the National Science Foundation.

Bush himself was one of the fathers of digital circuit design theory and a dean of MIT. As head of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, he was also responsible for purging it of supporters of the pseudo-science of eugenics.

In Science, The Endless Frontier, his 1945 report to the President of the United States, Bush called for an expansion of government support for science. Truman responded by creating the NSF. So influential was this report that two years later it was also picked up by policymakers in Brazil.

The document inspired São Paulo’s state assembly in 1947 to mandate 0.5% of state tax revenues to promote higher learning and research. This later led to the creation of a regional research funding organisation – FAPESP. In 1989 that share was raised to 1% and ever since then FAPESP – now with an annual budget of approximately US$500 million – has enabled significant activity in Brazil’s most research-intensive region.

Clearly, the NSF’s US$ 6.8 billion in annual disbursements dwarfs this total.

Coincidence or not, the Brazilian federal government’s contemporary political branding of scientific research activity as “Science Without Borders” follows closely the image forged by Vannevar Bush with his The Endless Frontier.

Today the NSF continues to inspire some policy initiatives at FAPESP. For instance, the clustering of research disciplines into 17 “virtual researcher centres” or CEPIDs (Centros de Pesquisa, Inovação e Difusão) closely follows the NSF’s use of Science and Technology Centers.

Furthermore, long-term funding by the NSF and its sister organisation The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), have helped inform financial policy at FAPESP. State endowments have allowed FAPESP to acquire the financial stability needed to fund research projects with a horizon of over 12 years, ensuring that scientific decisions are influenced by annual fluctuations in income.

In fact, thanks to these endowment funds, FAPESP’s annual disbursements for research funding are between 120%v and 200% of its variable annual income from the state treasury. Frugality, too, has been enshrined in São Paulo’s research funding model: its constitution states that 95% of funds must go on research, and just 5% for administration.

Today, São Paulo state is responsible for roughly half the key variables in Brazil’s research community, Brito Cruz told the AAAS audience in Washington.

In terms of Brazil’s published output, 44% of all research articles come from São Paulo (which in turn is more than any other country in Latin America), while 45% of all the country’s yearly crop of 14,000 new PhDs come from its regional universities. On a per capita basis, the level of state investment by São Paulo in research is almost double that delivered nationally by the government in Brasília.

Annually, FAPESP receives some 25,000 research funding requests. The average delay for analysing these requests is just 65 days, and on average of 45% of all grant requests are successful, said Brito Cruz. Currently, there are around 11,000 researchers receiving funding from FAPESP.

The NSF continues to inspire FAPESP in other ways.  In much the same way as 13% of the NSF’s annual disbursements go to partner research projects with industry, so FAPESP also has a portfolio of research projects with international and local companies. More than 100 industry partners include Peugeot Citröen, GSK, British Gas, planemaker Embraer, and natural cosmetics firm Natura.

Additionally the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research programme has inspire a Brazilian counterpart that is currently funding more than 1,000 small businesses with innovation research initiatives.

And just as the NSF coordinates the US network of international alliances and partnerships, so FAPESP is strongly focused on internationalising access to science in Brazil and by Brazilian researchers.

In addition to individual researcher mobility – the option favoured by the federal government though its “Science Without Borders” undergraduate and postgraduate programmes – FAPESP places strong emphasis on the sharing of whole research programmes with the building of new laboratories, training and the establishment of research clusters.

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