Newly-impoverished Brazil could soon be reaching for higher impact science to guarantee a better “bang for every research buck,” after wasteful years and policymaking divisions between rival agencies.
The “party’s over” message being delivered to Brazilian academics is that if they want access to fast-dwindling public resources, they must engage much more closely with the process of transforming their nation into a knowledge society, and align their research more closely with government policy.
Politicians running technology policy are also on notice that they need to pay more heed to scientific experts who should play the role of gatekeepers, before spending on public projects is allowed to begin.
The silver lining to the clouds now engulfing Brazil’s research community is that the country could find itself reliving an era of rapid innovation, as scientists deliver local solutions in a bid to reduce dependence upon technologies that are now too costly to import.
The barely-coded warnings came from nuclear physicist José Goldemberg, who as well as being Brazil’s best-known scientist, is a “big policy thinker” who has just taken over the reins of the country’s most dynamic research funding agency.
Goldemberg certainly brings heavyweight credentials to the task of turning Brazil’s science policy research establishment into more productive and more cost-effective channels. Not only is he a front-ranking academic: He has a PhD in physics from the University of São Paulo and was its rector 1986-1990. He was also president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science.
As a policy maker, he has experience of government: he was president of the São Paulo state electricity generating company CESP and was also state secretary for the environment. And at federal level he has held a clutch of positions in Brasilia including secretary of science and technology; secretary of the environment; he was also interim minister for education (1991-1992)
While his position as president of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a regional, rather than national one, Goldemberg is well able to make himself heard because he commands both wide public trust in Brazil, and has a strong international reputation. He has just issued a powerful challenge to advanced developing nations to engage in meaningful commitments at the COP21 Paris Climate Change talks. You can read about this by clicking here.
His institution too has added resonance in Brasilia, because for the first time the heads of both the much larger federal research funding agencies (CNPq and CAPES) are both former FAPESP counsellors. Previously, agencies both at state and federal level has feuded with each other.
In his inaugural address at FAPESP delivered 8th, Goldemberg insisted that it was time for Brazilian science to play a leadership role in society, and to shake off an elitist “ivory tower” mentality that has prevented large numbers of academics from interacting with the world of business by generating innovations or engaging at a popular level with primary and secondary education. (Portuguese speakers can view a video with extracts of Goldemberg’s address by clicking here)
In his speech, Goldemberg pointed the way toward a much more policy-driven world in which science funding would be based more on the needs of society and industry – and less on the whims and fancies of pure researchers who have made the country a by-word for scattergun science.
Henceforward, he said, research funded by FAPESP would have to be more closely aligned with policies for innovation and development developed at both state and federal level — and with industry.
The development – which comes as Brazil faces a deep recession that is expected to cut GDP by 3% this year (and therefore will reduce state funds available to funding research) marks a distinct pivot away from FAPESP’s broadly humanist origins 53 years ago as an institution funding all branches of human inquiry.
In its place, Goldemberg is flagging an institution that must be much more savvy with its cash (its annual budget has fallen sharply from a peak of almost US$ 500 million a year, partly due to the 30% collapse in the Brazilian currency, the real).
Already, only on his second week in the job, Goldemberg had begun mobilising public opinion around the need for a new look at Brazil’s scientific assets, in order to combat the deep economic crisis that has resulted from the federal government losing control of public finances. In many respects, his recipe is reminiscent of the policies Taiwan or Korea deployed the early 1980s to lay the groundwork for their current prosperity.
Goldemberg also said that bad economic times could be good times for science. He cited US President Abraham Lincoln’s foresight in creating the National Science Foundation in the middle of the US Civil War, as an indicator of how science can and should drive social development, even in hard times such as the recession Brazil is currently experiencing.
On 15th September he told a round table of experts convened by the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) that the collapse in the value of the Brazilian real (down 30% this year) presented extraordinary opportunities for dynamic import substitution by Brazilian innovators and scientists. Faced with the need to slash imports to balance its budget, Brazil could give new impetus to local innovation.
“Science and technology isn’t just about having good ideas,” said Goldemberg.” It’s about the economic situation too. The fall of the local currency favours the development of local technology,” he added.
According to Goldemberg, the collapse of Brazil’s currency could revert a situation in which, because it’s been more cost effective to buy manufactured goods from China and high-end technology form the United States, the share of manufactured goods made by local industry has fallen from 18% of GDP to just 9% of GDP. Without investment in R&D from local firms, the downward spiral accelerated further.
Brazil’s new poverty means all that must be swiftly reversed. Indeed, Brazil could be ready to relive the debt-laden 1980s, when lack of hard currency and the need to substitute oil imports drove the country to some spectacular home-grown scientific innovation successes – and some abject failures too.
Brazil’s current global leadership in alternative energy through sugarcane-based ethanol, derives from Proalcool, a technology programme devised in the 1970s and 1980s purely to cut imported oil bills. You can read an article about Prof. Goldemberg’s view of the global importance of biofuels, and the important contribution that Brazil should be making at the forthcoming Paris climate change talks, by clicking here.
During the 1980s Brazil also flirted with nuclear energy as the answer to the nation’s electricity needs, with former military rulers seeking to dominate the full uranium weapons cycle, before they capitulated to American pressure and signed the Tlatelolco Treaty. What’s left is the ability to build nuclear reactors to power a new fleet of conventional submarines, and a couple of imported reactors.
Another unsuccessful product of the 1980s was Brazil’s attempt to build a go-it-alone computer industry – a scheme doomed to failure because, unlike Taiwan or Korea, the country never developed a semiconductor manufacturing capacity. As military rule staggered to an end in 1985, antiquated and overpriced home-built computers became a hated symbol of scientists’ to drive technology policy for their own benefit.
But Brazil’s military planners scored a major hit in the aerospace sector, where airframe maker Embraer is now the world’s fourth largest manufacturer – and is now acquiring the capability to build new generation supersonic fighters under a deal with Sweden. Whisper-quiet regional jets used the world over, are made by Embraer.
Now, there is everything to play for in the biotech and pharmaceutical innovation sectors as Brazil becomes a cheap place to do advanced research. Although in the last 30 years Brazil has given up to multinational companies much of the leadership space it occupied in vaccine production and tropical medicine, it possesses the capacity to build substantial biotech industries dedicated both to human health, and to plant and animal husbandry.
But to achieve these goals, the scatter-gun of Brazilian science has to be transformed into a rifle.
Currently, said Goldemberg, FAPESP receives thousands of annual requests for individual grant funding, for financing research institutions for companies, and even for startups. “We need better coordination between research, science funding agencies, and state government policy as well as with federal agencies (Finep), (BNDES) and with the private sector,” he said.
Goldemberg also signalled a future role for science funding agencies such as FAPESP, to become the gatekeepers and evaluators of innovation policies being trialled by government agencies. Goldemberg compared the future role of agencies to the World Bank’s expert evaluations.
In recent years, career politicians of the populist Workers Party-led federal government have ignored scientific opinion to embark on extravagant but largely unproductive ventures such as an attempt to reverse the flow of the Sao Francisco river to irrigate arid parts of the Northeast, and Science Without Borders, a mobility scheme to provide generously-funded foreign study tours for undergraduates, many of them without the language skills to study abroad. Both are being slimmed down and are likely to be scrapped.
All these developments could signal a sea-change in Brazil’s scientific research efforts, which despite deploying 1% of GDP (making it unique in Latin America) has found the impact of its research lagging behind neighbouring countries with smaller budgets. Scientific impact has proven stubbornly hard to raise in the rankings tied to global publications – in part because Brazil’s scientists persist in a parochial attitude to language and sharing credits with international colleagues.
Most importantly of all perhaps, as Brazil’s best known scientist Goldemberg commands widespread public trust and his pronouncements have considerable impact in a nation where scientists have not traditionally taken part in the public debate and have not chosen to exert much political sway, or even to involve themselves in the business of transforming society though such vehicles as the media or primary and secondary education.
FAPESP has certainly hired a big gun to head up science policy in Brazil’s most economically powerful state. Now Goldemberg needs to persuade the whole nation to join his crusade to transform Brazil into a knowledge society that in 30 years time will look less like a society that’s commodity-rich but learning-poor, and more like Korea or Taiwan.