Brazil adopts “Brain Gain” strategy for scientific excellence.

“Brain Gain” is an outright gain for Science

This article describes the research funding scene in Brazil and  shows where Latin America’s largest nation is positioned in global research terms and what  prospects it offers to international scientists. The views expressed are those of

What kind of international scientific research policy should an ambitious developing nation such as Brazil adopt to ensure that “Brain Gain” replaces the old pattern of “Brain Drain”  – in which locally-born researchers pack their bags for Boston, Berkeley, Paris, or London, perhaps never to return home?


In place of this old zero-sum game comes Brain Gain – a win-win pattern of international partnership and harmonious development for science that advances the sum total of human knowledge beyond national boundaries.

As Brazil takes its place as an emerging scientific research powerhouse, it confronts a number of interesting choices. On the one hand, rapid economic growth offers the financial firepower to send ever-greater numbers of its students overseas to capture know-how from cash-strapped international universities, now hungry to receive high-paying foreigners.

On the other, the country hosts over 20% of global diversity and so is a natural magnet for life science researchers focused on the Amazon and other natural habitats. Emerging global primacy in the worlds of ultra-deep water oil prospecting, renewable energy, biofuels and minerals, should also mean international talent will “follow the money” towards a country oozing with opportunity.

After decades of struggle, Brazil’s national technological champions – planemaker Embraer, oil major Petrobrás, and miner Vale  – have been built upon the knowhow of tens of thousands of scientists who studied overseas in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Eike Batista, Brazil’s wealthiest man and the world’s eight richest (according to Forbes magazine), studied geology in Germany during the late 1970s.

Clearly, overseas talent training has worked in the past (data shows that unlike Indian scientists, more than 80 percent of Brazilian postgrads eventually  return home). But as the technology stakes are raised, the usefulness of this strategy steadily diminishes.

Today’s hunger for knowledge can only be met by importing foreign scientists.

So, rather than simply exporting its talent, Brazil has stumbled on what could be a winning best-of-both-worlds development model.

The federal government in Brasília continues to work on a national policy to export over 100,000 science students to Europe and the United States for training by 2015. In 2012 the federal government announced ‘Science Without Borders’, a programme to give undergraduates and graduates the opportunity to study overseas. The R$3 billion (US$1.65 billion) programme is 75% financed by government, 25% by industry. It’s expected that the US will take 20,000 students, and France, Italy, the UK and Germany 6,000-10,000 students each.

But more intriguingly, regional development agencies in economic heartland states like are rolling out the red carpet to attract high-calibre international scientists. The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is facilitating a new generation of international researchers seeking career opportunities in Brazil. So far, it’s only a trickle: São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state, hosted fewer than 250 foreign scientists in 2012. But the flow will increase.

In fact, what Brazil is doing reflects the wider demographic patterns or “balance of trade” of the international science research population. This shows a fascinating pattern of global migrations by homus scientificus.

Three seminal reports profiling this global traffic in scientific knowledge provide the conceptual background for understanding Brazil’s strategy. The UNESCO Science Report 2010, the Royal Society’s Knowledge, Networks and Nations 2011 report, and a paper by the US Government’s National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), all offer a statistical meta-view on what is happening to scientific research.

A recent 2012 study published by NBER profiles the movement between core scientific nations. Foreign Born Scientists: Mobility Patterns for 16 Countries claims to be the first systemic study of snapshot of the ‘knowledge economy’s’ premier strategic resource. In early 2011, the GlobSci Survey polled some 17,000 scientists from 16 core countries working in the fields of biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences and materials.


At one extreme (on the right in this graphic) stands the United States, whose locally-born researchers are traditionally the least mobile of all. Yet the nation serves as a powerful magnet for international scientists. Almost 48 percent of all PhDs in the United States are foreigners. Seeing the statistics, it’s not hard to attribute at least part of the US technological prowess to foreign brainpower.

At the other extreme stands India,  (right in the center) where foreign scientists are virtually absent, yet which has almost 40 percent of its own scientists working outside the country (75 percent of those in the US).

While it’s clear that both India and the US benefit from their mutual “export-import trade” in scientists, there is a group of European countries that seem to benefit even more from a “balanced” strategy of simultaneously exporting and importing scientists. Nations such as the UK, Germany, and above all Switzerland, get a disproportionately high return from their scientific research investments, thanks to higher joint publication of scientific papers and a more intense two-way flow of talent. This two-way traffic in scientific research is the global “sweet spot.”

Right now, the NBER survey shows that Brazil still has a low quota of foreign scientists working in-country, and also of Brazilian scientists working abroad. At around 7.1 percent, the figure almost as low as Spain. And most of those foreigners working inside Brazil tend to come from nearby Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

In fact for a country built on successive waves of immigration over the last 500 years, modern Brazil has astonishingly low number of foreigners at work in the country, and despite its huge wealth is today almost completely isolated from global labour markets. Companies like Google will typically have dozens of unfilled vacancies at its local subsidiary.

Today foreigners represent just 0.3 percent of Brazil’s workforce, down from 7 percent at the beginning of the 20th century. In Australia, a similarly sized country that has long attracted immigrants, foreigners account for about 20 percent of the workforce. Government officials are saying they want a tenfold increase in the number of foreign workers – scientists especially included – over the next few years, to reach a level of 2-3 percent of the workforce.

Nor in absolute terms are Brazilian scientists great travellers – only around 8.3 percent are working overseas (mostly concentrated in Germany, the US and Canada) compared to 25 percent mobility for UK scientists and 33 percent for Swiss scientists.

The ability to move and to publish internationally is a key attribute of the successful scientist. Other studies (Empirica 2005) show that up to 43 percent of all researchers the field of life sciences are now working internationally. Up to 50 percent of all the most highly-cited PhD physicists are working as guests in another country.

Science research is a huge global business. The study (Knowledge, Networks and Nations) by Britain’s Royal Society estimates that there are over 7 million researchers around the world, drawing
 on a combined international R&D spend of over US$1,000 billion (a 45% increase since 2002), reading and publishing in around 25,000 separate scientific journals per year.

The Royal Society’s survey shows exactly how international cooperation works in the field of international publications. It used Scopus, the 
world’s largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature. This Elsevier-owned commercial product contains over 41 million records across 18,000 journals and covers regional as well as international literature.

But crucially, it doesn’t contain many non-English papers and so the data is skewed against scientific producer countries like Brazil. In part because many non-English scientific articles do not get recorded by such databases, one Brazilian regional institution, FAPESP (São Paulo Research Foundation) has sponsored SCIELO, an online database of over 200 peer-reviewed journals from around the Latin-speaking world.

The USA, Western Europe and Japan all invest heavily
in research and receive a substantial return in terms of performance, with large numbers of research papers. The USA leads the world in research, producing 
20 percent of the world’s authorship of research papers, dominating world university league tables, and investing nearly US$400 billion per year in public and private research and development. Together with the UK, Japan, Germany and France, these five countries alone are responsible for 59 percent of all spending on science globally.

However, these countries do not completely dominate global science. Between 1996 and 2008 the USA lost one-fifth of its share of the world’s article authorship, Japan lost 22 percent and Russia 24 percent. The UK, Germany and France also fell back in relative terms.

Brazil, in line with its aspiration to be a ‘natural knowledge economy,’ building on its natural and environmental resources, is working hard to increase research spending to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2022 (from just over 1.7 percent in 2007). São Paulo’s rise of 21 places in the list of top publishing cities (as measured by the Royal Society) in the last decade reflects the rapid growth of Brazilian scientific activity, and the city’s role as the capital of the state with the strongest scientific tradition.

Of the scientific articles published by Brazilian academics and tracked by Elsevier, São Paulo state has the lion’s share. Of the 34,172 articles published by all Brazil’s research universities, 14,664 came from São Paulo institutions. And of that subtotal, 7,739 papers alone were written at the University of São Paulo.

In terms of international scientific collaboration, Brazil’s share of articles co-authored by foreign scientists was lower in 2009 (30%) than it was in 1995 (42%).

The UNESCO Science Report 2010 contains a useful snapshot of the nation’s scientific research status, in a special chapter written by Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz and Hernan Chaimovich. The former is the Scientific Director of São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP, and one of the leading exponents of national science policy.

Thanks to Brazil’s sustained economic growth in recent years, the US$ 23 billion spent on R&D in 2008 compares well with investment levels in Spain (US$20 billion) and Italy 
(US$ 22 billion) in absolute value.

Despite this investment level, the Brazilian business sector registered only 103 patents at the United States Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2009. That total is less than one fifth of the patents granted to Indian companies in the same year. Within Brazil, the National Patent Office (INPI) granted most patents to FAPESP, to the University of Campinas in São Paulo (Unicamp) and another academic institution.

In terms of publications of scholarly articles, Brazil ranked as No 13 in 2008 on the Thomson Reuter Citation Index. Over 90% of these articles came from public universities.

And although Brazil’s science investment is above Latin America’s average, it is still well behind both the EU average and the OECD average. More than half of all investment (55%) in scientific research comes from the public sector, while private enterprise provides 45%. It’s notable that in advanced economies a greater percentage comes from the private sector (65% in EU). In fact the Brazilian share of business R&D spending is just 32% of the OECD average.

Brazil’s national science and technology capacity is managed through National Research Council (CNPQ) and Coordination for Training Higher Education Personnel (CAPES). At state level, FAPESP is the most notable regional institution. Indeed, state-level funding of science and technology research is really important in Brazil.

Around 32% of the national total comes from these funds. The highest contributor is São Paulo where 64% of all spending comes from state funds (US$9.2 billion out of a total of US$20.25 billion). That makes São Paulo state a bigger investor in science and technology than Mexico, Peru and Argentina put together. It is the second largest investor in Latin America after Brazil itself.

Over the last 50 years FAPESP alone has financed the research programmes and travel of more than 110,000 post grads. Yet Brazil faces a huge shortfall in advanced science researchers at PhD level, despite a rapid increase in recent years. With just 4.6 PhD’s per 100,000 inhabitants (2008 figures), Brazil’s ratio is 15% lower than Germany’s and one third of the ratio in Korea.

Similarly, Brazil has a low proportion of researchers in the overall labour market. While the US has 9.4 researchers per 1,000 labour force and the UK has 8.29, Brazil has just 1.33 on average. This trails behind Argentina and most EU nations.

Brazil’s proportion of industry-based science researchers is correspondingly low. More than half of the total (57%) work in universities. Just 37% are employed by the business sector.

The main partners for Brazilian scientists are in the US.  In the period 2003-2007, 11% of articles had a US-Brazil link, with 3.5% having a UK–Brazil link.

In terms of scientific output Brazil – and São Paulo especially – is advancing rapidly. Meanwhile Brazil’s share of published scientific articles worldwide climbed from 0.8% in 1992 to 2.7% in 2008, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database.

So, although Brazil is beginning to do the right things in terms of investment strategy for growth in its science and technology sector, there is a long way to go. And for that reason, there are many opportunities for international scientists seeking to expand their career horizons within Brazil.

In forthcoming articles we’ll be digging deeper into the sectoral opportunities, and profiling the institutions, the research activities and the personalities that all make up the sometimes frustrating yet always vibrant world of Science for Brazil.


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