The Long Road to Scientific Recognition

 

Madrid skyline from the University quarter

Brazilian scientists spent a week in Spain, explaining the state of knowledge in Latin America’s largest country to their local counterparts in Madrid and the university city of Salamanca.

They were also ready to roll out the welcome mat back in Brazil  to visiting foreign scientists, with a tempting smorgasbord of research and development opportunities, rounded off with a very audible jingling of hard cash in the deep pockets of the world’s new big spender on the science block. The Times Higher Education  (THE) reports that Brazil now spends more on research & development than Italy or Canada – around US$ 25 billion in 2010, with much more earmarked for 2013. It outstripped Spain some years ago.

You would have expected hard-pressed academics from Spain’s increasingly-empoverished universities would have bitten off the hands of their Brazilian visitors in the scramble to find a comfortable place in the sun, or to secure a lifeline for projects whose funding may soon be axed as the Madrid government’s austerity bites. AFP reported that the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the largest public institution dedicated to research in Spain and the third largest in Europe, would not hire a single scientist in 2012 to work at its 133 centers. Five years ago, in 2007, it hired 250 scientists.

Not surprisingly  Román Arjona*, secretary-general of the science, technology and innovation secretariat of Spanish Ministry of the Economy and Competitiveness, said Brazil was now a “strategic partner” and that his government had a “huge interest in strengthening relations with Brazil in the field of innovation.”

Spanish Technology ministry’s general secretary-general Roman Arjona (2nd from right) addresses symposium in Madrid

But science doesn’t really work like that – especially in Salamanca, Europe’s third most ancient university city, founded in 1134. After all, Christopher Columbus’ journey of discovery was planned here and the proud Spanish are hardly in the mood to be “rediscovered” by Latin Americans — especially those from the other side of the Tordesillas Line.

Anyway, scientists aren’t easy to impress and they move slowly. They deal with empirical facts, rather than opinion formation, marketing solutions, or breathless new arrivals.

In Salamanca at least, the Spanish are understandibly loth to abandon comfortable traditions and lifestyle built up over five centuries of glory. The local newspapers might be full of alarming articles about “brain drain” and “science in crisis,” but the majority of academics are staying put, even if the lights in their faculties are being turned off.

A total of 108 employees out of 258 at the Prince Felipe Research Centre, including 79 scientists, have been fired

And so the Brazilians – much less formal but still proud in their own way – struggled to get noticed, despite the rather attractive story of new money and new opportunity that they had to tell.  They seem politely puzzled that what they have to offer doesn’t win more enthusiastic acceptance.

When it comes to international science policy, toting a big cheque-book or buying state-of-the art hardware for research, such as supercomputers, synchrotrons or oceanographic survey vessels, isn’t quite yet enough to impress the average European professor set in his ways.

As some Middle Eastern or Asian nations with a fraction of Brazil’s genuine scientific prowess have discovered to their cost, it’s also necessary to walk the talk — or rather grind the daily grind — of scientific knowledge management at classroom level, in order to get lasting results.

 

Madrid’s Arco de la Victoria near the university

Ministers and university rectors may fly in and out on their gilded international circuit, issuing communiques and promising cooperation. But what counts in the end is scientific work at ground level: half-empty seminars on microbiology or materials science, interspersed with wordy disquisitions from political scientists.

It takes years of rather dull seminars in overheated lecture halls, or poorly-attended initiatives lubricated by inter-university cooperation agreements and joint calls for proposals, to make any difference noticeable to politicians.

Just like Rome, scientific cooperation wasn’t built in a day. It might take years of plugging away before Brazil gets what it wants – a steady influx of foreign experts ready to share their experience and so help boost the nation’s industrial  and technological muscle.

Oddly enough, Brazil has in the past been hugely successful at bringing in foreign expertise.

Its most prestigious institution, the University of São Paulo, was set up in 1934 by a group from the Sorbonne in Paris that included anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roger Bastide. The University of Campinas was founded in 1966 drew heavily on the skills of Brazilians returning from  Bell Labs and other U.S. institutions. Unicamp also benefitted from bringing several Argentinian professors who could not, or would not,  go back to their politically-embattled country during the seventies. Another institution, ITA, the best engineering school in Brazil, owes its curriculum and quality to MIT professors who came to lead its creation in 1948.

Brazil has its own distinguished history of scientific innovation too. While many parts of the world recognise the Wright brothers as the fathers of flight, Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont was the first to take off under his own power, not a catapult. He invented the wristwatch too. Oswaldo Cruz, a bacteriologist, revolutionized  public health programs with his mass smallpox vaccination campaigns. And Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a sociologist and former president, has just won the Kluge Prize.

So the Brazilians won’t give up until they have a permanent seat at the high table of international scientific cooperation. Already, says a new THE report, “The number of papers by Brazilian authors in the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index doubled between 1997 and 2007, making the country the 13th-largest producer of science in the world.

During 2013 Brazilian scientists  from São Paulo will take their international cooperation roadshow to Japan (March), China (June) and Northern Europe (September).

They certainly have an attractive message for their foreign counterparts. But they will first need to hone their presentation and language skills in order to participate fully in the international knowledge exchange arena.

However, Brazilians do have the necessary dedication and professionalism — and above all  the public funds — to eventually make a big noise in the science world.

*You can read a Portuguese-language news report about Secretary Arjona’s visit by Clicking Here.

 

 

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