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  • Q&A: The growing promise in South–South scientific collaboration


Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, talks about shared responsibility and a rosy future for South–South research collaboration.

Brazilian mathematician Jacob Palis has spent much of his career trying to convince the countries of the South that collaboration is the key to sustainable development.

Palis is a foreign member of ten countries' academies of science, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the current president of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. As TWAS president, he has put his ideas on South–South cooperation into practice within several of the Academy's collaboration programmes.

Palis talked to Carla Almeida about South–South collaboration, the essence of a successful partnership and the challenges involved.

How would you describe international support for South–South research collaboration at the moment?

There is more support than ever, and both the expectations and achievements are more concrete than they were ten years ago.

It's particularly significant that the relatively more developed countries of the South have decided to share the responsibility for supporting sustainable science and technology for all countries.

In Brazil, for example, [South–South] collaboration is now a part of government policy. China and India are also committed. Mexico is joining the group. The landscape has changed. The responsibility [for supporting research in developing countries] is better distributed [between North and South] now.

I think this is very symbolic and can be an incentive to the other countries. It says, 'If they succeeded, we can also succeed'. When you compare yourself to countries that are much more developed, it is harder to get this feeling.

Where would you place TWAS's efforts in that framework?

TWAS supports scientific research in the South through several programmes.

One of them offers postgraduate training in Brazil, China, India and Mexico for researchers from the least developing countries. This involves around 200–250 scholarships annually.

Are there some situations where South–South collaboration makes more sense than in others?

Behind all types of successful collaboration, there is always scientific leadership. There are countries like Chile, for example, that are very good in biotechnology. Therefore, it is easy to have an exchange between Brazil and Chile in this area.

On the other hand, it is necessary to forge new collaborations. Good researchers from the more advanced developing countries should go to the least developed to offer courses and other types of training.

If the programmes involve a group of researchers going to the same institution, this is even better, as a magical, intellectually stimulating environment can be created. Creating stimulating environments is the key to producing sustainable science.

What is important for a successful collaboration?

When institutions open their doors they have to have a generous attitude and be very patient in the initial phase of the collaboration. This is the most important moment. If it is a good start — enthusiastic and respectful — it is a sign that the collaboration will go well. On the other hand, if a researcher arrives and feels out of place, the collaboration is unlikely to go well.

It is important to overcome the first obstacles: the differences in culture, climate and language. Once these are overcome, then it is important to value the achievements of the researchers involved in the collaboration.

Finally, it is also essential to demand quality. A country cannot pretend to be training competent young researchers if, in fact, it is not.

The brain drain is a problem for scientific progress in developing countries. Can collaboration help revert it?

This is hard to solve. Firstly, we need to formally oblige researchers to go back to their countries once the collaboration is over.

But the big problem, which is yet to be solved, is the local conditions — the difficulty researchers face in obtaining a decent job and well-equipped facilities once they go back.

There should be a mechanism through which researchers take back with them equipment from the collaboration that lets them continue their research. TWAS is going to propose something in this direction.

What are good examples of South–South arrangements that have lasted and flourished beyond the initial funding period, and what is the key to their sustainability?

The collaborations between Argentina and Brazil have been working well for close to 30 years. There are moments in which we [Brazil] offer more, and vice-versa, but this balances out.

Empathy among the collaborating countries is very important. We [Argentina and Brazil] argue a lot over football, but the fact is that both countries recognise the importance of collaboration.

Sustainability has everything to do with good results produced from joint research. This is what creates the link [between researchers] and maintains it.

How can developing countries get the most out of South–South research collaboration?

Research collaboration will have limited impact if governments do not see the value of science and technology. Recognition of this value grows greater each day in the more privileged developing countries, but this needs to be transmitted to other developing countries.

The big challenge is to achieve a satisfactory baseline level of science and technology research in all countries. We should not be satisfied until then.

What do you think the next ten years holds for South–South research collaboration?

Today, the G8+5 countries ― including Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa ― are not only open to discussion but are actively seeking to engage all countries in important debates. G8+5 countries ask their scientific academies for their opinions on themes such as climate change, deforestation, and sustainable development in the least developed countries.

In my opinion, South–South collaboration will become stronger each day. I see science and technology as a positive tool for global diplomacy.

This article is part of a Spotlight on The promise of South–South cooperation.

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