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The historical rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, familiar on the football pitch, seems to be reaching the field of science.

Last month, when the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — a leading US philanthropic organisation — announced the winners of its most recent round of grants to researchers in Latin America, there were 15 Argentinians on the list, but only four Brazilians.

The grants range from US$266,665 to US$450,000 over five years — three Chileans, seven Mexicans and one Venezuelan were also honoured — and are judged on significant contributions to biomedical research.

In Brazil, the results were received with some surprise. According to figures produced by the Institute for Scientific Information, Brazilian researchers published more than twice the number of scientific papers in international journals in 2000 as their colleagues in Argentina, which has two-thirds the number of scientists.

Maria Rita Passos-Bueno, a researcher at Universidade de São Paulo, says that a "huge imbalance” between Brazilians and Argentinians was also observed in the last grants. She also points out that all the selected Brazilians are from Rio de Janeiro and that none are from São Paulo (where there is a highly efficient local funding agency, Fapesp).

Jill Conley, director of international research resources at HHMI, denies suggestions that concern over Argentina’s economic crisis may have affected the distribution of this year’s awards. “We look at an applicant and his/her science rather than at the economic situation of the country,” she says. “The reviewers didn’t discriminate between Argentina and Brazil when conducting their evaluations.”

But Glaucius Oliva, a researcher at the University of São Paulo/São Carlos, suggests that the current difficulty in obtaining research funds in Argentina could mean that more qualified scientists have been seeking HHMI awards than those in Brazil.

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