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  • Q&A with Odenildo Sena on science in Amazonas

Odenildo Sena discusses Brazilian science policy and shares his views on the main challenges for pushing science in the Amazon region.

Amazonas, where 98 per cent of forests are preserved, is the biggest state in Brazil with a territory equivalent to France, Spain, Sweden and Greece combined and one of nine states in the Brazilian Amazon region. Yet until ten years ago, it had no state funds for science and technology (ST) and only 433 doctoral (PhD) students were working there.

To improve this, over the past decade Amazonas has taken several steps to triple PhD numbers.

In 2002, the state's constitution mandated that at least one per cent of the state's total taxes should be dedicated to science and technology (ST) a model which was led by So Paulo, with its establishment of an ST agency in 1962, and was followed by other Brazilian states.

Amazonas created a state university in 2001, a state secretary for ST, and the Amazonas Research Foundation (FAPEAM) in 2003.

Odenildo Sena, president of the National Council of State Secretaries for Science, Technology and Innovation, and former FAPEAM president (2005-2010), tells SciDev.Net where science in Amazonas now stands.

The state research foundation, FAPEAM, was created in 2003 as the first research foundation in the Brazilian Amazon. How did this happen?

Before 2003, there were no state investments explicitly dedicated to ST. Our researchers had to apply for national resources through agencies such as the National Council for Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq).

In December 2002, we succeeded in inserting into the state constitution the policy that one per cent of ordinary receipts should be dedicated to ST, and, as a result, FAPEAM opened its doors.

At that time, FAPEAM was the only state research foundation in northern Brazil. I was therefore invited to go to almost every state in Brazil to talk about our initiative.

In 2007, the state of Par opened a research foundation and, across the region, there was then a domino effect. There is now only one state in the region, Roraima, which does not have its own research foundation.

At the time of its creation in 2003, FAPEAM had a budget of about US$2.5 million. In 2011, the budget was about US$23 million. In total, about US$141.5 million have been invested by FAPEAM since 2003. The budget for 2012 is about US$80 million.

Since 2003, 208 scientists have been awarded PhDs, through fellowships provided by FAPEAM. Currently, the state has triple the number of PhDs compared to a decade ago. But the gaps in training are still very significant in all areas. New PhDs are scattered across several knowledge areas. We need a bigger revolution.

If you had the power to make such a revolution happen, how would you do it?

I would not reinvent the wheel. I always remember the history of the creation of the University of So Paulo [a state university in So Paulo, created in the 1930s, and now the major Brazilian institution of higher learning and research, accounting for 30 per cent of national scientific production].

As there weren't many human resources, they brought people from abroad, mainly from Europe. If the Amazon is strategic for the country, let us transform Amazonas into the biggest reference platform for biodiversity and biotechnology research.

In summary, to push science in the Amazon, I would choose some strategic areas, put significantly more money in, and bring in more people.

On a national level, there is growing interest in linking research with Brazilian industry, particularly after the innovation law of 2004. How is this progressing in Amazonas?

In Amazonas, FAPEAM issued a call for project that would inject funds as economic subsidies into companies to promote innovation through a partnership with Brazil's Financier of Studies and Projects (FINEP). FINEP is linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and has a mission to promote economic and social development through science, technology and innovation in private companies, universities and technological institutes.

One of the conditions of FAPEAM's call was that private companies develop research for generating innovative processes from biodiversity resources. Several companies are doing very well now!

But when we launched the first call in 2004, there was little interest from the companies. We actually had to motivate them, showing how important it was to have research into industry.

At the last call, in 2011, a fund of around US$3 million was available, and companies applied for around US$5 million. This programme has been a big success, and it is a pity that FINEP has been undergoing structural change: currently, there is a tendency for it to act simply as a bank [instead of as a lending organization with very low interest rates]. As far as we know, there are no longer any allocations for economic subsidies.

If they persist in this idea, I am afraid that several public universities will be made bankrupt, as they have been using FINEP subsidies to fund their research infrastructures.

FAPEAM was one of the first research foundations in Brazil to create a science communication programme. Why invest in science communication?

FAPEAM's science communication programme was created in 2006. I did not originate this idea myself.I discovered that the So Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) had a science communication programme, so we adapted it for the situation at FAPEAM.

In a short period we created a state university, a state secretary for science and technology and a research foundation. We said: we need to engage society in our initiatives, to ensure the public were involved.

For that reason, we created a news agency, an online gateway and a magazine, Amazonas Faz Cincia (Amazonas Makes Science), now in its 24th issue.

We also launched a diploma course and an award in science journalism, the third edition of which has received 100 applicants.

The impact of these activities is interesting. Years ago, nobody knew what science journalism was; now, we have succeeded in creating a mood conducive to science journalism, with several students excited about covering science.

What do you think about Science without Borders (a US$2 billion programme, which aims to send 75,000 students and researchers abroad, as well as receiving foreign scientists)?

It is a very ambitious programme.

We have just received the first list of foreign scientists who want to come to the Amazon. I think Brazil is now very competitive and able to attract foreign talent, because of what we have achieved in science over the past decade, and the economic crisis [which did not affect Brazil as much as other parts of the world].

In my view, we should allow universities to hire foreign scientists, and we should start a wider movement to attract high quality researchers.

However, we also need to plan for the future. Brazilians who go abroad will come back, and we need to ensure that, when they return, they will find the infrastructure to enable them to work here. If not, it will be a disaster.

I do not understand what is now happening with President Lula, the science budget was continuously increasing. It is of great concern that during the past two years [under President Dilma],the government has been significantly reducing the budget for science.

And then President Dilma launched Science Without Borders: she has been spreading the word on the importance of scientific knowledge as the consolidation of intellectual capital, but then cutting science funding. It seems a schizophrenic pattern.

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