When the world's second-biggest mining company said last year that it would open three state-of-the-art research centers in Brazil, it marked the most visible development yet in the changing relationship between business and academe there.
Acknowledging that Brazil has struggled to produce innovative thinkers and internationally known research, the company, Vale, said it would spend $400-million on the three-campus Vale Technology Institute, employing hundreds of university-level researchers and providing research opportunities to students in fields including mining, sustainable development, and renewable energy.
The mining giant's big step is one of a series of investments by Brazilian businesses to support advanced research and, in some cases, improve the quality of academic programs in the country's universities. Some firms are providing training and education in cooperation with universities. Others are spending directly on higher education or working to design university courses. Still more are offering grants to academic researchers in relevant fields, such as mining and oil production.
"Until recently, academia worked toward one goal, and the business sector worked toward another," says Jorge Madeira Nogueira, an economics professor at the University of Brasilia. "But Brazil is competing more and more on a world stage, and the old prejudices many in the world of academia had about working with the business sector are being broken. The increasing closeness between the two will be very important for Brazil in the future."
Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of the São Paulo Research Foundation, a state body that helps private companies identify and finance science-and-technology researchers at local universities, says he has seen "a steep increase" in industry's interest in these programs.
The increasing collaboration is widely seen as benefiting all those involved. Universities get money for new courses or infrastructure; research and development are bolstered; and companies have more qualified graduates, in a broader range of relevant subjects, to choose from.
University administrators do warn of one potential downside.
"Sometimes industry doesn't value learning for learning's sake. It values learning something for what they need next month," says Mr. Cruz. "It is important that the university keeps in mind that their highest values are giving education and forming learners, not forming people who can learn about 3.0 something and are unable to learn 4.0."
A Crucial Partnership
The growth of partnerships between industry and academe has been driven by a endemic problem in Brazil. The low standard of education, for one thing, results in a dearth of skilled workers for what is a rapidly growing economy. Universities are not turning out enough graduates, and many of those who do enter the job market do not have the skills required by companies that compete on a world stage.
What's more, corporate research and development remain weak. Brazilian businesses spend less in that regard than the government does. By contrast, in the United States, Japan, and Singapore, the private sector makes significant investments in research and development, says Luiz Mello, director of the Vale research centers.
The "Unesco Science Report 2010," which offers a country-by-country look at the state of science education and research, warns that while Brazil's share of the world's scientific publications rose from 1.7 percent to 2.7 percent from 2002 to 2008, more collaboration between companies and academe is crucial if Brazil is to become a global player in that realm.
"One key objective is to nurture an innovation-friendly environment in firms by strengthening industrial, technological, and export policies, and increasing both the number of active researchers in the private sector and the number of business incubators and technoparks," the report says.
That kind of collaboration is blossoming in São José dos Campos, a city known as the home of many of Brazil's high-tech firms.
The Federal University of São Paulo plans to open a science-and-technology institute there this year that will offer three-year undergraduate degrees in engineering, which can be followed by two- or three-year specialized courses in metals, biomedicine, energy, or control and automation.
The institute expects to enroll 1,500 students by 2014, says Armando Milioni, the academic director.
He anticipates that local firms will work with the university to offer degree courses that are designed to prepare students to work in their industries. Talks are under way with Embraer, a major manufacturer of aircraft, to design an introductory course in aeronautical engineering. Vale and Petrobras, a state-controlled oil company, are expected to offer similar courses in subjects such as petroleum and energy engineering.
"The courses are of interest to the companies, and I can use them also for credits because they are scientifically important," Mr. Milioni says. "It's also a low-risk way of giving recruiters a chance to see prospective talent close up and allowing students to see whether they like the subject."
Embraer was one of the first Brazilian companies to develop close links with academe. In 2001 it started a program that puts several dozen top engineering graduates, from all over the country, through a 15-month course in aeronautics.
The program is designed in conjunction with the Aeronautical Institute of Technology, operated out of Embraer, and taught by professors from the institute, alongside lecturers from aeronautical schools as far away as Russia and Britain. Courses count toward a master's degree at the institute. Embraer then hires most of the graduates, giving them time off to complete their theses.
"University is much more theoretical—here is much more hands-on," says one of the students, Lara Filadelfo, who has an undergraduate degree in engineering. "Students here are more focused than at university."
Vale, the mining company, hopes to foster that same spirit of entrepreneurship at its three new institutes. It has signed agreements with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to exchange students and instructors.
The company, based in Rio de Janeiro, plans to hire 50 to 60 researchers, aided by scores of postdoctoral fellows and a couple of hundred students who will work on their master's and doctorates.
"We will have 400 people at each of the principal research centers," says Mr. Mello. "It will significantly increase the number of people working on research for Vale. And for Brazil as well."
Among the biggest Brazilian investors in higher education is Petrobras, the influential oil company, which has given about $268-million each year over the past four years to researchers pursuing advances in the production of oil and gas and biofuels, as well as in environmental preservation.
The company has partnerships with 110 Brazilian universities and research institutes, with much of the money going to set up laboratories and purchase modern equipment.
Those partnerships are key to Petrobras's future development. Brazil recently discovered large reserves of oil off the Atlantic coast that promise to make it one of the world's top oil producers within a decade. But much of the oil is at previously unreached depths, below more than three miles of water, rock, and salt deposits.
More research is needed about the geological formations at those depths, so Petrobras and five of the country's top universities created the Carbonate Training, Science and Technology System, a group dedicated to oil-related geology. In addition, at Paulista State University, Petrobras spent $5.5-million to help open a center for applied geosciences that will focus on oil exploration and production.
"Right now there are enough graduates to meet our demands, but we want to strengthen our partnerships with universities to make it easier to meet those demands in the future," says Carlos Eugêncio, Petrobras's general manager of oil reserves. The geoscience center's coordinator, Dimas Dias-Brito, says that the university itself did not have the money to spend on such ventures, and that private investment is good for faculty, for students, and for Brazil.
Petrobras's investment "is enormously important, as it allows to the creation of new centers of academic excellence in different parts of the country," wrote Mr. Dias-Brito in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. "I think there is space for more of these kind of alliances."
Even so, he adds, universities must not lose sight of their main goals and become mere tools of industry.
"There is considerable room for growth, but with care and wisdom," he says. "In our negotiations, we have to take care that the university is not transformed into a mere service provider for industry."