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As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in April, neuroscientist Luiz Eugenio Mello took over as scientific director of one of Brazil’s major research funding agencies, the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
While FAPESP is based in São Paulo, the state is responsible for approximately half of Brazil’s scientific output: FAPESP’s 2020 budget of about one billion Brazilian reals — US$195 million — is close to the $234 million budget of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).
In an interview with SciDev.Net, Mello shares his vision for the agency and for science.
What is your strategic vision for the future of FAPESP?
I intend to increase the efficiency of the agency. Understanding that no matter how good the institution is — it is a paradigm even compared to international standards — it is always possible to improve organisations. Increasing the efficiency of the agency is an important strategic objective.
When you refer to increasing efficiency, what do you mean? One of the aspects you have defended is the reduction of bureaucracy. Are you talking about this?
Exactly. By reducing bureaucracy, simplifying work and eliminating task repetition, it is possible to make better use of the time of well-trained and highly qualified people, such as assistant coordinators and area coordinators. They are people who are often involved in more bureaucratic and perhaps less valuable work.
During COVID-19 there are important opportunities and challenges for Brazilian science. What do you think would be the main opportunities?
The opportunities are mainly found in the reduction of geographical barriers.
At a time when international travel is limited, contact is primarily virtual. In that sense, it does not matter if I am in a neighbouring country, such as France or Germany, or if I am in a remote country such as Brazil. The collaboration could take place in the same way.
I would say that this is an opportunity, but it depends on something difficult, which is prior knowledge. Relationships between human beings are established on the basis of trust, and that trust should be earned beforehand to simplify the process.
Science has had, or may have, a relevant role in confronting the epidemic. Could this also be an important opportunity for Brazilian science, as it was in the case of Zika?
Zika was a unique episode, in the sense that it did not affect the central countries. It did not present a public health problem in England, France, the United States, where there were no cases. In Brazil, it represented a relevant and unique problem, providing an opportunity for Brazilian scientists to tackle the construction of knowledge and solutions to that public health problem.
In contrast, COVID-19 is a global problem and the competition is also global. On the other hand, studies on the effectiveness of drug A or B, or the effectiveness of the measurement of behaviour A or B, are implemented simultaneously throughout the world and, in this sense, collaboration is again important. If I can compare my results with those of colleagues from other countries, I will go further.
Economies have been greatly affected by COVID-19. FAPESP's budget represents one per cent of the total tax revenue of the state of São Paulo. What could be the impact for FAPESP?
Since the FAPESP budget is linked to the tax collection of the state of São Paulo … if the state's tax revenue falls, the FAPESP [budget] also falls. The forecast is that it will fall.
On the other hand, FAPESP is relatively preserved compared to other agencies in the country and abroad. In addition, we have already taken steps to adapt to the impact on the budget.
What measures has FAPESP planned to protect itself from this impact?
FAPESP has approximately US$100 million in contracts in foreign currencies. Therefore, if US$100 million corresponded before to 400 million reals, at one point during the crisis they corresponded to 600 million reals. This impact is theoretical because the exchange rate has already decreased from around six [Brazilian reals to US$1] to around five; the volatility of the exchange rate has been great.
On the other hand, travel abroad has been limited for several reasons. FAPESP has a scholarship called Internship Scholarship Abroad, which was suspended. Other scholarships that are not active, that we were processing or planning to be activated, have closed their calls, or will not be evaluated.
We are also reviewing all imports exceeding US$50,000 to avoid this impact of fluctuating exchange rates. At the same time, we have implemented other internal measures to establish greater rigour in the analysis processes to maintain a solid and present reserve fund in the agency. With this, if the state goes into bankruptcy, it could still pay the grants immediately to the fellows and could honour the projects without delay.
Other Brazilian research support agencies are in a deteriorated situation, with limited resources. What kind of impact is this having in São Paulo?
It has a very important impact. FAPESP never had the ambition to be the only support agency for the development of science and technology in the state of São Paulo. There is no way that FAPESP alone can take on this task.
Resources from other institutions that support science and technology are also essential in the state. An eventual decrease in the resources of both the CNPq and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) would have a disastrous impact on the development of science and technology in the state of São Paulo.
In fact, the CNPq seems to be managing to preserve its scholarships, but it has had a substantial reduction in funding. If it were not for the epidemic, the allocation of funds for the CNPq destined for financing this year would be 16 million reals [US$2.9 million]. With the epidemic, a large amount of resources were released, but specifically destined to confront COVID-19.
In Brazil, since 2019 there has been a great discussion around the importance of social and human sciences. In your opinion, what is the place of these disciplines in Brazilian science and in science in general?
They are paramount. It is impossible to say that A is better than B. The three categories —human sciences, life sciences and exact sciences — are equally important and have the same priority within the scope of FAPESP.
My wife and daughter are visual artists, my son studies filmmaking. With such a family, I would possibly be kicked out if I did not value [social and human science]. I am putting my personal perspective, but it is to illustrate that I understand the importance of these areas, of the activities associated with the human and social sciences. It seems absurd to limit investment specifically to those areas that can result in an apparently immediate economic return.
The World Health Organization has been very concerned about fake news on health and science issues. The director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has pointed out that it is as serious as the virus itself, from the social damage point of view. How do you see this phenomenon?
Fake news is a big problem. It is a complex phenomenon whose mere antagonization through clarification, although important, does not seem to be the most effective way.
The strategy of simply opposing does not seem to be efficient either. It is almost like putting a red cloth in front of a bull. The red cloth is the fake news and the bull is the truth: it generates an endless debate. Trolls feed on anger and hatred. For them, the shock is much more energizing and motivating.
In this fight, the story is already told and the fake news side tends to win, because it has the energy to do it, it lives on it.I am surprised to see that in the 21st century there are anti-vaccination movements and flat-earthers; it is stupid. Instead of using these terms, I prefer to say that there are people who do not believe in solid and materialised scientific evidence. It is almost like a cult. In this sense, there is this belief bias: people believe what they want to believe. The main remedy for fake news is a long-term remedy and it is education.
What does it mean to assume the leadership of an agency the size of FAPESP in times of pandemic?
I cannot complain because I asked to be in that position, I applied for it, I fought for it, I was nominated and chosen. Of course, I did not know what would be in this contingency.
I can say is that it is an exciting job because in the end what moves me, what moves many other people, is the possibility of changing the world, of contributing to a better world where things are better than they are.
This charge is certainly that lever. It is like Archimedes' analogy: “Give me a lever and I will move the world.” FAPESP is an incredible lever.
FAPESP is a donor of SciDev.Net
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America & Caribbean desk.