Science in Brazil: Opportunities and challenges

Moving abroad for a postdoc is an important step in broadening one’s experience and building an international network. This is of special importance for young scientists from less developed countries, who can obtain skills not available in their home countries. Many scientists from such countries remain abroad after their postdocs due to the more advanced opportunities available. It takes courage to return to a country with a less developed scientific infrastructure. Here, HFSP Career Development Award holder, Fernanda De Felice, who returned to Brazil after her postdoc in the USA describes the opportunities and challenges of working in her home country.

Fernanda De Felice is Associate Professor in the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she runs the Laboratory of Neurobiology of Alzheimer’s Disease. She was an HFSP Long-Term Fellow with William Klein, Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, Northwestern University in Evanston, USA. After her postdoctoral years she returned to Rio De Janeiro as an Assistant Professor and was awarded an HFSP Career Development Award in 2008. Her research interests are in the molecular mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease

Despite a history of five centuries since the initiation of Iberian colonization, Latin American countries have only begun to develop and consolidate their national systems of Science and Technology (S&T) in the past five decades. Brazil, for instance, has the largest economy and the largest research system of the region. Nonetheless, until 1950 there were no graduate courses accredited by a national system in Brazil. The few and small (in terms of number of students involved) courses which then existed resulted from isolated initiatives of a small number of research institutions or even isolated individuals. Only in the mid-1960s was the notion that investment in science would represent a strategic option for technological development and economic growth considered by the Brazilian Government. In parallel, the first federal agencies that support S&T in Brazil were created in the 1950s and 1960s. It is thus important to realize that in considering the development of science in Brazil one is essentially dealing with events taking place only in the past 50 years.

Brazil’s economy relies heavily on the agricultural and industrial sectors, and has experienced considerable growth in recent years. Although this economic growth has been responsible for significant modernization, improvements in infra-structure and benefits for the population, there is now a clear and urgent need to shift the focus of economic activities so as to decrease emphasis on classic productive sectors and follow the tendency in most developed countries to prioritize a knowledge-based economy. A major challenge is thus to transform Brazil into an economy built on knowledge and technology. To this end, efforts and continued investment are needed in training human resources capable of developing and using such technologies. At the same time, it is essential to carefully evaluate in quantitative and, especially, in qualitative terms, the return of the investment in S&T as vectors for the economic development of Brazil.

1. Quantitative growth and visibility of scientific production in Brazil and Latin America

A quantitative and qualitative analysis of the development of Latin American scientific production recently performed by Hermes-lima et al (2007) showed that, between 1990 and 2004, the number of scientific articles published per year by researchers rooted in Latin American countries grew from 6,994 to 17,919. In fact, for the top 10 countries in Latin America in terms of their contribution to scientific production (Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Peru), the number of scientific articles published increased between 1.5 and 2.8 fold between 1991 and 2003. In the same period, the number of publications from the 5 major worldwide producers of science (USA, Japan, United Kingdom, Germany and France) increased between 1 and 4 fold. In terms of the percentage of its contribution to world science, Latin American production grew from 1.8% in 1991-1995 to 3.4% in 1999-2003. It is also noteworthy that Latin America is the region with the largest growth in terms of its contribution to world science over the past 15 years (Hermes-Lima et al., 2007).

The quantitative growth of scientific production in Latin America gives reason for optimism. However, perhaps more important than a quantitative review, a critical evaluation of the visibility of Latin American science in the context of world science is necessary. A useful indicator for this purpose is the impact or peer recognition of the publications, which can be measured by the average number of citations received per paper. This indicator reflects the fact that, on average, scientific articles that have major impact in their respective fields will be cited more often than articles perceived as having less impact. It is interesting to note that there is a general correlation between a higher percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP, expressed in USD) invested in S&T and a higher number of average citations per paper in all science areas (click HERE to see table) for the 3 largest producers of science in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina) and for some selected developed countries. Furthermore, available data shows that the visibility or relative impact of Latin American scientific production is low compared to that from developed nations (or even to world averages). This clearly indicates the need to increase the visibility and the quality of science in general, and in the biomedical sciences in particular, that is produced in Latin America. It is thus important to realize the need to create effective policies to increase competitiveness in terms of the quality and international recognition of science in Brazil. This has been the subject of recent intense internal debate in Brazil and it is hoped that policies will be implemented to improve research infrastructure, attract foreign visiting scientists, recruit both more established and promising young scientists from developed countries and to stimulate collaboration with centers of excellence abroad. . 

2. Opportunities

One of the underlying causes of the striking growth in Latin American scientific activity is the impressive growth in the number of doctorates in science and engineering in the countries of the region and, in particular, in Brazil where this explosive growth is due in part to the increase in the number of doctoral programs. As might be expected, the increase in S&T publications correlates positively with the increase in full-time S&T jobs from 1990 –2004 in Latin America, in agreement with the observation that a significant proportion (~ 80%) of Brazilian S&T PhD graduates are absorbed by universities or research institutes (Hermes-Lima et al., 2007).

It is important to note that the best PhD graduates from Brazil can often obtain postdoctoral fellowships from the National Research Council for postdoctoral training abroad. However, such stipends are still lower than those provided by fellowships offered by international programs that, in their vast majority, only accept applications from USA, Canadian or European citizens. Fortunately, a few highly selective international programs allow Latin American citizens to apply for postdoctoral fellowships. The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) and the Pew Latin American Fellows Program are two examples of programs committed to support the postdoctoral training of young scientists and their repatriation after completion of training (Bauer, 2006).

Overall, it is noteworthy that good PhD candidates, especially those who obtain further post-doctoral training in research centers of excellence in developed countries, have had,and continue to have, good job opportunities in Brazil. Furthermore, as different areas of research still need to be either implemented, established or expanded, we expect to see considerable opportunities in Brazil for young scientists to participate in producing world class research.  

Another positive aspect of science in Brazil is that principal investigators can usually apply for fellowships from Brazilian granting agencies to cover salaries for post-docs, PhD and MSc students and even undergraduate students. In addition, one lab technician is usually provided by the universities to a productive principal investigator. This is certainly a major plus that allows training of qualified personnel and boosts research in the labs of productive scientists. 

3. Current Challenges

Since small manufacturers in Brazil and Latin America are unable to produce and deliver most of the essential reagents and equipment, scientists must import them from abroad. Therefore, the cost of reagents is usually more than twice the original price (compared to the cost of the same reagent in the USA or Europe, for example). Additionally, customs, health and agricultural inspection procedures related to importation of items that need special handling and, especially, the bureaucracy of releasing such items to researchers are a logistical nightmare. As a consequence, researchers have to deal with amazingly long waiting periods between the actual purchase and delivery of a reagent to the laboratory. This process can take anywhere between 3-12 months

This is a major bottleneck that prevents the rapid transformation of good ideas into novel and interesting results, thus decreasing significantly the competitiveness of Brazilian Science, especially in fast moving fields where new discoveries are made almost every day. To overcome this major obstacle, it is not unusual for Brazilian researchers to travel abroad a couple of times a year just to bring emergency reagents for the laboratory inside their suitcases.

Even though there has been a considerable increase in the amount of funds competitively available to scientists in Brazil (especially since the late 1990s/early 2000s),  another major hurdle concerns the administration of grants obtained from State or Federal funding agencies. Unfortunately, the Brazilian system does not allow overheads or indirect costs, and all bureaucracy related to grant administration must be carried out by the scientists themselves. In practical terms, this means that one must deal in person with all banking, accounting and financial reporting matters, involving numerous trips to banks and countless hours spent in preparing and verifying bank statements and accounting reports. As a rule, universities do not provide qualified administrative personnel for grant administration. In principle, this situation could be easily ameliorated by changing the rules so as to allow researchers to spend a certain percentage of their grants (which would still be much smaller than typical overheads in developed countries) to hire temporary administrative support for grant management. This could go a long way towards freeing up scientists for creative laboratory work rather than the bureaucratic work they are neither interested in nor have been trained to perform.    

4. Final Remarks

In conclusion, making scientific research prosper in Latin America is not an easy task and its consolidation will take time, as it is unrealistic to think about miraculous short-term solutions. We will need to overcome a few barriers, such as the crucial barrier to import much-needed scientific equipment and reagents to streamline the flow of new ideas into novel, ground-breaking scientific discoveries.. In this regard,  Brazilian researchers have been trying to convince the government that priority channels need to be established for imports related to science.

Despite a variety of challenges ahead, we have reasons to believe that the future for science in Brazil and other Latin America countries has the potential to be brighter. Further increases in investment in S&T (so as to approach investment levels in developed countries) and a better utilization of currently available S&T resources by Latin American nations, including policies to increase competitiveness and establish more efficient governance, might lead to significant improvements in the visibility, recognition and quality of science produced in the region. Intense investments in basic education (from pre to post-graduate levels) have been a key issue for the development and economic growth of developed countries and this example should be followed by Latin American nations. Production of cutting-edge research in Latin America can be achieved with proper support. Motivation, creativity, and a good measure of passion for Science are other key elements that we already have.

References

Bauer, G. (2006). Science without borders. B.I.F. Futura 21, 230-235.

Hermes-Lima, M., Santos, N.C., Alencastro, A.C., and Ferreira, S.T. (2007). Whither Latin America? Trends and challenges of science in Latin America. IUBMB Life 59, 199-210.