Science Seeking Sport’s Reflected Glory

Football takes centre stage in the global imagination as the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil dominates the airwaves. But this spectacle generates a broad halo of media attention, offering walk-on parts and supporting roles for science as well as sport.

The hunt for football’s reflected glory explains why prestigious science publication Nature has dedicated a special edition to  the “Science Stars of South America.” The special edition focuses on a region that, says Nature’s editors, “has spent too long on the sidelines of science.”

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Science publications seeking halo effect from soccer’s planetary gleam

The package of six detailed articles profiles the countries, the research institutions, the projects and the scientists working across the region. Here’s the 5 minute digest if you’re too busy, too excited, euphoric or just too miserable from watching the football, to read the lot. And if your team is being sent  home  after the group stage and you  have unexpected free time on your hands, the links will show you  where to read the full story!

Notable are the infographics in the feature that analyses the bell-wether nations in terms of overall publications and budget. Here Brazil dominates with more than five times the number of publications that its neighbour Argentina, over the last decade. In terms of budgets too, Brazil is the only regional country able to spend above 1% of GDP on research.

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Towering influence: Brazil dominates the scientific numbers

On a more positive note for Brazil’s less wealthy neighbours, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have all achieved significantly higher citation impact than Brazil. Indeed, Brazil’s relatively low collaboration rate for publications in the 2008-2012 period (where less than a quarter of articles included an overseas collaboration) may go some way to explaining why the citation rate in South America is only 80% of the world’s average.

That said, Nature’s profile of the Big Players across South America science highlights “pockets of excellence. The section on Brazil highlights the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), a regional agency with a 2013 budget of $512 million. Although a state entity, this total almost matches the budget of Brazil’s federal research council CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) with its $650 million earmarked for science, technology, and innovation in 2014.)

In London Nature journalists were told by Martyn Poliakoff, foreign secretary and vice-president of the Royal Society, that “FAPESP is a very interesting model for us because São Paulo is one of the few states in the world where support of research is linked directly to GDP”.

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South America’s key institutions profiled.

The editorial article introducing Nature’s reporting package points out that boosting South America’s productivity in science should be a matter of collaboration. Above the message is just the same as for football fans during the FIFA tournament: “please come and visit us – and then ask some of our folks back to your home.”

Says the article: “individual scientists and larger organizations in the developed world can offer significant help to South American countries. When Nature asked leading South American scientists what kind of assistance would bring tangible benefits, the answers invariably clustered around two key requests to their international colleagues: host young scientists in your laboratories, and come to visit South American researchers.”

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One historic reason for South America’s “science deficit” is the fact that for an entire generation, political and economic instability caused the brightest and the best to head for the exits, seeking academic postings in the USA and Europe. Now it’s time to come home, and efforts to entice a Latin America science diaspora back home is the theme of one Nature article. If what happened back in the 1970s and 1980s could be called a brain drain, that world has now been superceded by the term ‘Brain Gain’ and the interchange is the subject of a profile of how South America’s smarter scientists are repatriating themselves.

Science, of course, can only be made when individuals find institutions to support them. So the Nature package reviews how leading scientists see the process of capacity creation and institution building across their region. In Brazil, much of the focus continues to be the Amazon region, and the drive to foster sustainable development for theose who dwell in the region. Carlos Nobre, the national secretary for research and development policies at Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, writes in Nature that “creating a new economic model for the Amazon forest will therefore take two transformations; both require science.”

Whatever the outcome in Brazil’s Maracana stadium, it’s a sure thing that South American Science will be a winner.

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