Physics World (Reino Unido)

Nurturing top talent in Brazil

Publicado em 01 abril 2014

Por Susan Curtis

To the outside observer, Brazil would appear to be in robust shape when it comes to educating and developing its scientists and engineers. The headline numbers are impressive enough, with Brazil’s spending on R&D more than quadrupling to R$50bn ($21bn) in the decade to 2011 and the country’s share of the world’s annual output of scholarly papers rising from 1.2% to 1.9% over the same period. Within physics, the citation impact of that research is twice the global average, helped by a strong tradition of collaboration with leading scientists in other nations.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and a more troubling picture comes into focus. Eduardo Gomez, a seasoned Brazil-watcher at Rutgers University in the US, summed up the situation neatly in a 2012 Viewpoint column for BBC News Latin America and Caribbean. “Before aspiring to build a world-renowned, technically sophisticated workforce,” he wrote, “perhaps President [Dilma] Rousseff should invest more in primary and secondary schools, where the future of Brazil’s scientific and technological progress truly resides.”

Gomez’s take is not an isolated view. In fact, the poor quality of science education in Brazilian schools is a recurring theme highlighted by the country’s physicists, who cite low pay and lack of recognition as the underlying reasons for a chronic lack of qualified physics teachers at high-school level. “We have many problems in relation to physics teaching in Brazil,” says Silvania Nascimento, a researcher who specializes in science education at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte. “We have a serious shortage of physics teachers in our public schools, and physics is also losing out to engineering and other better-paid professions as a career choice.”

Physicists, teachers, educationalists – as well as state and federal funding agencies – are, though, trying to improve physics teaching and learning. One initiative is a new national professional Masters degree in physics teaching, which is coordinated by the Brazilian Physical Society (SBF) thanks to support worth R$3.6m per year from the Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES). So far, 21 universities across Brazil have signed up to run the two-year course, with CAPES allocating fellowships to 400 students each year – all of whom must be practising physics teachers in middle or high schools.

Rita de Almeida, who set up the Masters programme for the SBF, expects it to have “a huge impact” on physics education across Brazil. “The physics teachers will take the professional Masters course on a part-time basis over two years, so they need to schedule the coursework and dissertation around their existing teaching commitments,” she says. “We’re trying to promote creative and progressive ways to teach physics, with the help of more engaging course materials that will be developed by the Masters students themselves.”

On a smaller scale, the CERN Portuguese Language Teachers’ Programme has helped to enrich the professional development of more than 80 Brazilian high-school teachers over the past six years. Together with nearly 300 of their peers from other Portuguese-speaking nations, the teachers attend an intensive week-long session at the particle- physics laboratory in Geneva, which includes lectures and workshops delivered by Portuguese-speaking scientists.

Lectures cover the basics of particle physics physics, cosmology, astroparticle physics, data acquisition and medical physics, while the teachers also take part in hands-on activities at CERN’s accelerator and detector installations. The programme benefits physics teachers, who return home fired up by their interactions with CERN scientists and colleagues from other countries, while CERN reinforces its relationships with a number of developing countries – a useful exercise in the lab’s efforts to become a truly global initiative.

Brazil’s federal government also has a number of initiatives for promoting science education. A national teaching initiation programme, for example, awards scholarships to students embarking on teacher-training courses, and also provides a significant salary uplift to teachers who mentor these students in their classrooms. Other government programmes focus on providing extra support for high-school students with an aptitude for scientific research. As well as gaining access to scholarships to fast-track their studies, these students will often get to work directly with academic advisers in the research community.

Long, hard road

Vitor de Souza, an astrophysicist at the Physics Institute at São Carlos, which is part of the University of São Paulo (USP), thinks that any mechanism to ease the transition from high school to university will benefit students, who are often under-prepared for the rigours of an undergraduate physics course. Indeed, he finds that only 10 to 20 of the 120 students who start a four-year physics degree at USP actually graduate. “About 30% of students drop out after the first semester, but the third semester is the real test,” he says, pointing out that it is at this stage that more advanced topics, such as electrodynamics, enter the curriculum.

The problems in high-school science certainly contribute to this high drop-out rate, but so does the fact that students who excel at science and mathematics are often lured by the greater rewards on offer to qualified engineers. As well as higher salaries, graduate engineers can expect to secure a wellpaid job straight out of university, while would-be physicists need to continue their education with a two-years Masters programme, a four-year PhD and at least two postdocs. “It’s a long, hard road to become a professional physicist in Brazil,” says de Souza.” Only those who are really passionate about physics will choose to make a career out of it.”

As a result, there is growing competition for the best graduate talent, says Antônio Azevedo, who is head of physics at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in Recife, in the north-east of Brazil. He believes that increasing numbers of physics graduates are now recruited by industry – particularly Petrobras and the oil companies – straight after their first degree. “Many graduates also choose to work abroad for their PhD or postdoctoral experience, which contributes to a shortage of graduate students,” says Azevedo.

Global approach

Although department heads such as Azevedo may want more graduate students to stay in Brazil, time overseas is still a vital rite of passage for many young Brazilian physicists. A spell abroad as a postdoc gives researchers valuable skills and experience with world-leading groups, which they can then exploit on their return to initiate new research fields in Brazil. Indeed, many physicists go on to have long-standing collaborations with their overseas colleagues that continue to stimulate research ideas long after they come back home.

One example is Leonardo Menezes from UFPE, who spent two years as a postdoc with Oliver Benson’s nano-optics group at Humboldt University in Berlin. On returning to Brazil, Menezes set up his own nano-optics research lab and has since maintained close links with Benson’s group. “When I first arrived at UFPE, this collaboration allowed me to access experimental equipment that wasn’t available to me in Brazil,” he says. Menezes has since published with the Humboldt group and Benson is keen to spend some time at UFPE as a visiting professor.

The benefits to Brazilian science of students going abroad are so significant in fact that the government has launched a R$3.5bn programme called Science Without Borders, which aims to send 100 000 of the top Brazilian undergraduates and PhD students to leading institutions around the world by 2016. The programme will in addition fund “inbound fellowships” to bring 860 early-career scientists and 390 senior scholars to Brazil to complete a two- or three-year research programme.

Meanwhile, many physicists in Brazil are increasingly contributing to international “big science” research projects, but for non-Brazilian researchers seeking to work in the country, it can still be hard to compete for permanent research posts. Candidates not only have to prepare a lecture for teaching and give a seminar on their research, but also need to sit an exam, in Portuguese, on degree-level physics. These requirements can deter all but the most willing, which is what prompted an alternative recruitment strategy at the ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research in São Paulo – a new joint venture between FAPESP and Italy’s International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Faculty members there are being recruited by an international search committee based on a call for CVs, letters of recommendation and an interview, the idea being to allow a strong, open competition.

A similar approach is also being taken at the International Institute of Physics (IIP) – a theoretical-physics centre linked to the Federal University of Rio Grande de Norte. Backed by an international advisory council chaired by Itamar Procaccia of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the IIP is currently home to three senior visiting researchers from Italy, Japan and Russia, as well as a number of postdocs from the US and Europe. “Our selection process follows international rules under the guidance of our international advisors,” says IIP director Alvaro Ferraz. “We also run regular international workshops, conferences and schools, which attract many other international visitors during the year.”

Brazil’s international dimension

Alongside the connections made by individual scientists with colleagues around the world, the Brazilian government’s increased funding for science is also transforming Brazil from a mere participant in large international scientific projects to a strategic partner that can influence the experiments’ designs and scientific aims. Brazilian scientists are, for example, currently involved in each of the major experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, while São Paulo hosts a powerful “Tier2” computer that helps analyse the reams of data emerging from the LHC. Brazil’s impending “associate membership” will, if approved, formalize the government’s commitment and open up new opportunities for Brazilian companies to supply instrumentation to CERN.

Brazil is also one of 17 partners in the Auger Observatory, a facility in a remote part of western Argentina for the study of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays. Its participation builds on Brazil’s long history of cosmic-ray research, which dates back to the late 1940s when César Lattes developed techniques with Cecil Powell at the University of Bristol in the UK to detect atmospheric cosmic rays that eventually led to the pair discovering the π-meson. But the country’s contribution to Auger was different because it allowed Brazilian firms to supply technology to a major international project for the first time – including a 2.2 m diameter lens and half of its 1600 giant water tanks. There are hopes of matching that success with the Cherenkov Telescope Array, a gamma-ray observatory being planned by 27 countries for sites in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Researchers in Brazil have also started to take part in various galaxy surveys. At its simplest level, this has involved the country providing a financial contribution to projects such as the US-led Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Dark Energy Survey in exchange for obtaining access to their data. For newer projects, however, Brazil has been involved right from the start of the design phase. “By contributing instrumentation to international projects, we understand exactly how the instrument works, what can be extracted from the data and the limitations of the experiment,” explains Raul Abramo, a cosmologist at USP.

That focus on developing international partnerships is also a key driver for the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). “Since 2007 there has been a greater focus on creating international collaborations, provided that Brazilian scientists can make a real contribution to the project,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. “FAPESP will offer part-funding for projects where overseas scientists establish a link with a lead researcher at one of the universities in the state.”