Brazilian Science at a Crossroads

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Science  11 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5630, pp. 141
DOI: 10.1126/science.301.5630.141

Brazil's natural and human resources are being squandered because of the country's deep economic and social problems. The new government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has set out to reduce Brazil's foreign economic and technological dependence, settle social accounts, and foster sustainable development. Brazilian scientists must help the country as it stands at this crucial crossroads.

Science and technology are well established in Brazil. The genome sequencing in 2000 of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial pathogen of citrus crops, was a feat symbolic of Brazilian scientific capacity. Given that Brazil's main source of commercial income is from agriculture, scientific research can and has contributed to improving productivity. Other areas of strength include research in the physical and biomedical sciences and in engineering (particularly deep-water oil drilling and aeronautics). Brazil also has a long tradition of seeking alternative sources of energy, exemplified by using ethanol from sugar cane to fuel vehicles in the 1980s. Recently, a national program that integrates several initiatives has been launched to develop fuel cell technology. Scientific articles published by Brazilian researchers in international journals are increasing and now account for 1.3% of total papers published worldwide.

Despite these strengths, the number of Brazilian international patents is low: Only 98 patents were filed in the United States in 2000. There is an annual trade deficit of about US$ 20 billion in the microelectronics, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. The total resources for Brazilian science and technology are almost 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP), an amount well below the desired figure (in 2000, the United States spent 2.8% of GDP on R&D and Japan spent 3%). Research is mainly conducted in universities and institutes funded by both federal and state governments; interactions between universities and private companies are rare. Resources for basic research are scarce, the number and monetary value of grants remain low, and the infrastructure of research institutions and universities is deteriorating. About 3000 Ph.D. students graduate in a scientific subject each year in Brazil, but many cannot find jobs, and the proportion of researchers remains small compared with that in the United States or Korea.

The new government has announced the ambitious goal of doubling the amount of research spending within the next 4 years. The creation a few years ago of an ingenious funding initiative whereby taxes from certain industries, such as oil, are diverted directly into R&D spending was a significant step in this direction. Nevertheless, this program still requires more efficient and integrated management. Additionally, the government should consider decentralizing grant funding decisions, setting up new programs to support emerging as well as established research groups, and addressing the old problem of unstable funding that has plagued Brazilian science.

Two huge strategic problems must be tackled: education and innovation. Only 24% of all Brazilians between the ages of 25 and 34 have graduated from high school, and a mere 6% have a university degree. Millions of Brazilians are illiterate. Although access to education has improved, the average number of years spent in school (6) is one of the lowest in the world. Important contributory factors include the poor training of school teachers and their low wages. Brazil must improve the quality of teaching, particularly of scientific subjects. This could boost the continued development of science and technology by motivating young people to choose scientific careers. A national program for popularizing science is under discussion and could become an important tool for educating future generations about science.

The Brazilian government must crusade for innovation. The federal and state governments should use their clout to establish innovative technology companies and to stimulate new solutions for tackling complex social problems. The current small investment by private companies in R&D (23% of total investment) must be boosted by introducing policies that encourage investment in science and technology. But concomitant reductions in public resources for R&D must be prevented at all costs.

The competence and creativity of Brazilian science and technology have been underexploited because of the lack of consistent policies, stable funding, and steadfast decisions. The science and technology communities must participate in the formulation and implementation of bold new policies to overcome the huge social, economic, and environmental problems that Brazil faces. We cannot miss out on this process.

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