On 12 June the eyes of the world will turn towards Brazil, as the host nation kicks off the opening football match of this year’s FIFA World Cup against Croatia at the Itaquerão Stadium in São Paulo. With the 2016 Olympic Games being held in Rio de Janeiro just two years later, the world’s fifth-largest country and seventh-biggest economy can finally claim to have become a leading player on the global stage. “Our hour has arrived,” proclaimed the then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2009, after Brazil had been chosen to host the two largest sporting events on Earth.
Despite protests at the cost of staging these huge occasions, scientists in Brazil have benefited greatly from the government’s public spending in recent times. Investment in scientific research has shot up from R$12bn in 2000 to R$50bn (about $21bn) in 2011, boosting Brazil from 17th in the global rankings for published scientific papers in 2000 to 13th just a decade later. According to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank, a bibliometric-analysis service, scientists in Brazil published more than 56 000 research articles in 2012 – just over 2.0% of the global research output and up from 1.2% in 2000.
Brazil’s physicists are also enhancing their scientific credentials through a growing presence in large international collaborations. Ongoing negotiations with the CERN particle-physics lab in Geneva should see Brazil become an associate member within the next year or two, while the country is also taking a leading role in ambitious projects such as the Auger Observatory, which opened in 2008 in a remote part of Argentina for the study of ultrahighenergy cosmic rays. “Physics has become more important,” says Sérgio Rezende, a physicist at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), who was Brazil’s minister for science and technology from 2005 to 2010. “We are making good progress.”
The rapid rise in Brazilian physics is particularly impressive in a country where academic research is a relatively recent pursuit. The first modern university – the University of São Paulo – was established in 1934 and graduate programmes in physics did not emerge until the 1960s. “In 1950 there were only two undergraduate courses in physics and less than 12 Brazilian physicists with a PhD,” recalls Rezende. Formal funding for university research only became available in 1951, when two federal agencies were created: CNPq, the National Research Council; and CAPES, which was connected to the ministry of education.
Even then, most of the money was linked to individual scientists rather than research projects. “The two federal agencies had the mission of providing fellowships to the best students and funding for the best researchers to go abroad,” says Celso Pinto de Melo, a UFPE physicist who was president of the Brazilian Physical Society (SBF) until 2013. “The attitude in government then was that science is expensive and there’s no need to invest, so instead individual researchers were given grants to work at leading overseas institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge,” he says.
From small beginnings
It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Brazil started to develop its domestic science base. One key development was the state of São Paulo’s decision to set up its own research foundation, FAPESP, in 1962. “Scientists and politicians somehow managed to write it into the constitution that FAPESP would receive 1% of all tax receipts in the state,” says Rezende. “Since then, FAPESP has always funded good science, and São Paulo now accounts for 40–50% of Brazil’s scientific output.”
Then, in 1967, the military dictatorship – which controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 – embarked on a major reform of the university system. The generals decided that CNPq and CAPES were too close to a scientific community that had become critical of their regime, and so a new funding agency, FINEP, was set up to provide research grants to both industry and academia. “FINEP was very powerful, and provided some funds to CNPq and CAPES,” recalls Rezende. They had ample grants to begin with, allowing powerful new physics departments to be created.”
These new departments were formed as part of a rapid expansion in the federal university system. Full-time faculty positions were created, along with graduate programmes overseen by CAPES. But in the 1990s the now democratic government faced a catastrophic combination of massive public debt, hyperinflation and a stagnant economy. “Federal funds were very tight and at one time FAPESP had more funds than FINEP and CNPq put together. It was FAPESP that kept science going in Brazil,” says Rezende.
Money started to flow back into scientific research when Lula was made president in 2002, and really gathered momentum when Rezende became science minister in 2005. Additional federal funding was mirrored by increased contributions from companies and state governments, with the result that in 2011 the total investment in R&D was more than four times that of a decade earlier.
Brazil’s spending on R&D now accounts for 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 40% of that total funding comes from companies. Large firms such as the national oil company Petrobras and energy utilities are also required by law to contribute 1% of their income to scientific research.
That additional funding has brought fundamental change to the Brazilian physics community. “The investment in basic physics has grown,” says Eduardo Miranda, a theoretical condensed-matter physicist at the State University of Campinas. “FAPESP has always been steady and strong, while federal funding has been good for the last 10–15 years. That makes it possible to plan longer-term investments in research programmes.”
Theory has traditionally dominated Brazilian physics because it is much cheaper, but more universities are now investing in experimental facilities and young physicists are being trained in practical techniques. As a result, there is an almost even split between theory and experiment, and in areas such as condensed matter and optics the number of experimental physicists outnumber theorists by three to two.
Brazil also has sufficient funding to develop large-scale research infrastructure, such as the Sirius next-generation synchrotron source now being built in Campinas, and for the country to make more substantial contributions to international collaborations. “Our expectation is that Brazilian scientists should take a leadership role in large research projects and not just watch on as mere participants,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP and a physicist at the University of Campinas. “The analysis of two five-year projects at CERN required two workshops to assess the scientific contribution that Brazil could make. Both were approved with flying colours.”
Physicists are generally well placed to take advantage of the improved funding regime, says Brito Cruz, because they tend to be well connected and have high professional standards. In fact, the SBF, which was formed in 1966, now has about 6000 members, including almost all research physicists plus many physics teachers. With enough critical mass to influence science policy, the SBF has helped to raise the profile of physics in Brazil, improving science education and mobilizing support for Brazil’s participation in international projects.
As a result, the number of physicists at PhD level has grown fourfold over the last 20 years – reaching almost 4000 in 2010 – while Brazilian physicists wrote almost 25 000 research articles in international science journals between 2007 and 2010. Moreover, according to Brito Cruz, articles by Brazilian physicists receive twice as many citations per paper as the global average, which he thinks is partly because of the physics community’s growing involvement in large projects such as CERN and Auger. “Overall, physics has a greater impact because researchers in all sub-disciplines are better connected and have greater visibility internationally,” he says.
Creating global leaders
Yet despite such progress over the last 30 years, Brazilian physicists still have a number of long-standing problems to deal with. Low standards of science education in high schools limit the number of physics students who can complete an undergraduate degree, while many physicists lament a fundamental disconnect between academic research and industrial development. “People at university don’t know how to handle spin-offs and companies are suspicious of universities,” says Melo back at the UFPE. “Industry doesn’t recognize the value that physicists can bring.”
There is also a sense that the physics community needs to be more ambitious and more audacious. “We need to believe that important things can happen here,” says George Matsas, a theoretical physicist at São Paulo State University (UNESP) and a scientific committee member at FAPESP. “We have people with real talent, but the last step for Brazil is to create global scientific leaders.” One issue is that research success is too often measured by the number of papers published in scholarly journals, which many physicists think leads to conservatism rather than bold new ideas.
As a result, Nathan Berkovits, the USborn string theorist who works alongside Matsas at UNESP, feels that researchers in Brazil publish lots of papers but of questionable quality. In fact, Berkovits complains that many of the processes governing academic research in Brazil do not encourage excellence. “No-one from outside Brazil is involved in the committees that assess research quality,” he says. “Competitions for permanent university posts are mostly decided by written exams rather than research accomplishments, while salaries are generally independent of the quality of the research.”
More broadly, there is a feeling among the physics community that Brazilian society does not recognize the value of science. There are few iconic physicists or research institutions to fire students’ imaginations, while in soap opera – Brazil’s national obsession – scientists are portrayed as crazy “boffins”, not normal people. In fact, despite the increased funding, Brazil’s commitment to research still lags behind more-developed scientific nations. Rezende estimates that 0.8 per 1000 inhabitants currently work in research, compared with two per 1000 in the US and Europe.
What stands in Brazil’s favour is its demographic. The population is still young and projections suggest that by 2022, when Brazil celebrates 200 years of independence, the country will reach the benchmark of two researchers for every 1000 inhabitants. And with the numbers of new PhD students continuing to rise, Brazilian physics is likely to continue to have a growing worldwide impact. What would really help to bring the feel-good factor back, though, is if Brazil can win the World Cup.
FAPESP blazes a trail
Apart from playing host to six matches at this year’s World Cup, the state of São Paulo is also the powerhouse of Brazilian science, accounting for almost half of the country’s research output. The state supports three public universities – including the University of São Paulo, the largest and highest ranking university in Latin America – while by law 1% of all state tax revenues is invested in the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) to spend on research, education and innovation. With an annual budget of around R$1.1bn, FAPESP funds research projects lasting from two to 11 years and offers about 12 000 fellowships for undergraduates, research students and postdocs. To encourage international collaboration, fellowships are also available to overseas scientists, provided the lead researcher is based in the state of São Paulo.
When combined with funding from federal agencies and the business sector, research spend in the state of São Paulo is 1.6% of gross domestic product, compared with 1% in other parts of the country. Indeed, FAPESP has been something of a role model for other Brazilian states and today there are at least 15 state-level research foundations that offer some degree of autonomy from federal regulations as well as an independent source of income.