Brazil’s lessons on science for development

Under President Lula da Silva, Brazil's science budget has more than doubled Copyright: Ministry of Science and Technology (Brazil)

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Brazil must ensure its support for science becomes long-term commitment, not one restricted to the mandate of a particular government.

It’s a good time to be a scientist in Brazil. Science has been a high priority for most of the past decade, and in particular during the tenure of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Since 2003, for example, both the country’s science budget and the number of research fellows in its universities have more than doubled.

It was no surprise, therefore, that when Lula addressed the 4,000-strong audience at the Brazilian Conference for Science, Technology and Innovation, in Brasilia last month (26–28 May), he was greeted with a standing ovation.

The conference itself focused on the role of science, technology and innovation in promoting sustainable development, addressing issues that are urgent not only in Latin America but in the whole of the developing world (see Onwards and upwards for Brazilian science).

Brazil’s scientific record has important lessons for other developing countries. In particular, it has demonstrated the value not only of a political commitment to science from the top, but also a clear determination to turn this commitment into effective action.

But, as the meeting showed, Brazil still faces major challenges in its aims to develop a science base that can effectively meet the challenges of sustainable development (and not just produce high quality research), and to prolong its commitment to science beyond the span of a particular government.

Its success — or otherwise — in achieving both goals will also be closely watched, as will the lessons it learns along the way.

Significant successes

Lula’s popularity partly reflects his government’s success in reducing poverty in the country. Since 2003 the number of Brazilians receiving less than a quarter of the government-defined minimum wage has fallen from 37.4 to 19.6 million. Unemployment figures have also dropped sharply.

In that time, the number of places for students in public universities and the number of research fellowships have both doubled, while funding for science has increased from 1.26 to 1.56 per cent of the country‘s gross domestic product (the new target being proposed by last month’s meeting was to reach 2.00 per cent over the next decade).

Particularly significant is the fact that over the past seven years, about US$400 million has been spent on activities intended to engage the public in science and technology (S&T).

Half of this sum has been spent on so-called ‘technology vocational training centres’, which support young people to develop expertise in specific careers. The rest has been spent on science popularisation activities, including national science weeks, science centres and museums, and science journalism, all helping to create a culture of science on which successful development depends.

Persistent challenges

But Brazilian science still faces challenges. One — as for many developing countries — is convincing private companies of the need to invest more in science and innovation.

Other challenges will be familiar to other countries across the developing world, including excessive bureaucracy, a fragile infrastructure, and difficulties in replacing staff who retire from public research institutions and universities.

Another problem that was clear at last month’s meeting was the poor representation of women in science. Less than ten per cent of the national awards for science announced during the conference were given to women, and although their number has significantly increased in the science world in Brazil, decision-making in the area of science policy is still dominated by men.

Brazil also struggles, as other developing countries do, in evaluating the impact of investment in science on the nation’s development, partly because the impact of such investment is so long term, and partly because it lacks adequate evaluation tools.

On top of all these, Brazil also faces specific challenges in reducing regional differences in support for science and technology, which is particularly weak in the Amazon region.

Lessons learned

Despite such challenges, Brazil has made a substantial step forward by recognising the need to find better ways of applying science to social goals in other words, to encourage social innovation — by including it on the agenda of Brazil’s national system of S&T.

Also positive is the inclusion of a commitment to improve the application of S&T to sustainable development — even if considerable disagreement remains on what sustainable means.

But perhaps the main message from last month’s conference is that the political decision to not only prioritise science from on high, but also to put such a commitment into practice, is the single factor behind Brazil’s success.

Lula’s opening speech to the conference reflected his determination that the country should continue to move in this direction, even after he stands down at the end of this year.

Some are concerned that the outcome of the elections could lead to a period of uncertainty about funding for science. The result could be a return to the instability faced by many countries in the developing world, despite the good intentions of ministries, presidents and governments (see Rhetoric and instability stunt Latin American science).

Brazil, under Lula, has shown what a commitment to science can achieve. The next lesson is that such commitment should not be limited to the mandate of one government, but should become a national goal, regardless of which president, or even party, is in power.

Luisa Massarani is Latin America and the Caribbean coordinator for SciDev.Net