Go south, young scientist
by The Economist
POPULAR with foreigners looking for sun, sea and samba, Brazil wants to turn itself into a hot destination for seekers of science. Though its own bright graduates still head to Europe or the United States for PhDs or post-doctoral fellowships, nowadays that is more because science is an international affair than because they cannot study at home. The country wants more of them to return afterwards, and for the traffic to become two-way.
Brazil is no longer a scientific also-ran. It produces half a million graduates and 10,000 PhDs a year, ten times more than two decades ago. Between 2002 and 2008 its share of the world’s scientific papers rose from 1.7% to 2.7%. It is a world leader in research on tropical medicine, bioenergy and plant biology. It spends 1% of its fast-growing GDP on research, half the rich-world share but almost double the average in the rest of Latin America. Its scientists are increasingly collaborating with those abroad: 30% of scientific papers by Brazilians now have a foreign co-author.São Paulo, Brazil’s richest state, is leading the effort. It has the country’s best universities, including the only two that make it into the top 300 in both of the best-known global rankings. Its constitution guarantees the state research foundation, known as FAPESP, 1% of the state government’s tax take. That amounted to $450m in 2010, and comes on top of money from the federal government.
This allows São Paulo to offer the money and facilities to attract foreign researchers. That will remain essential for a while. Brazil is short of established scientists, a legacy of the dire condition of its schools, even if these are now improving. “We have money, and plenty of ideas,” says Glaucia Mendes Souza, an expert on sugar-cane genomics at the University of São Paulo who co-ordinates FAPESP’s bioenergy research. “We need more research groups, and more people to lead them.”
Fortunately, this is a good moment to lure foreign scientists. Research funding is being squeezed in Europe and North America. Although Brazil’s super-strong currency may bring fears of deindustrialisation, it also makes all kinds of imports cheaper. But snaring academic superstars will be hard. Though Brazil pays junior researchers well by international standards, the same is not true at the top of the scale. Publicly funded universities have no flexibility to offer more money to seal a deal. Nor can they offer research-only contracts: all tenured academics must teach undergraduates. Permanent positions can be filled only by open competition: heads of department cannot simply identify the best candidate and start negotiating. And those competitions include a public examination—in Portuguese.
Still, FAPESP is trying. It has advertised two-year fellowships at some São Paulo universities in Nature, a scientific journal read globally, and though most responses came from scientists early in their careers, it is mostly the more senior ones who are being invited for discussions. FAPESP hopes that during those two years they will learn Portuguese (lessons are included) and that some will want to stay.
Perhaps the main thing Brazil can offer scientists is plenty of room to grow. “You can have your own laboratory here,” says Anete Pereira de Souza, a plant geneticist at the University of Campinas, another big São Paulo state university. “You can start an entire new area of research. Here, you’re a pioneer.”
Becoming part of the global scientific endeavour is about more than national pride. By doing their own science, developing tropical countries can make sure that it is not only the problems of people in rich, temperate places that get solved.