WHEN PHYSICIST Horatiu Nastase accepted a permanent position in Sao Paulo two years ago, none of his colleagues considered Brazil as a career option. A lot has changed since then. “Now, many more are thinking about coming here,” says the Romanian string theorist. The 40-year-old has no plans to leave his research position at Sao Paulo State University. “I have seen Brazilian science going up since I came here, the opposite of what you see in the U.S. or Japan, where funds are cut and hiring is made difficult,” he says. Nastase did his PhD at Stony Brook University in New York, and then worked at Princeton University, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “The idea of coming to Brazil doesn't scare scientists anymore,” he says.
Nastase is one of many scientists surfing the wave of Latin American R&D growth. “In the last decade, the Latin American and Caribbean region has had the fastest increase in number of scientists and publications,” says Mario Albornoz, coordinator of the Ibero-American and Inter-American Network of Science and Technology Indexes (Ricyt), based in Buenos Aires. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of full-time scientific positions in the region rose from 130,000 to 245,000 and publications increased from 27,000 to 62,000 (from 2.73% to 4.36% of the world's total), according to Ricyt's data.
“These trends have been sustained by a rate of increase in science funding second only to that of Asia,” explains Albornoz. The amount invested in Latin America R&D has grown from US$10 billion to US$27 billion between 1999 and 2009. Although the investment has spurred growth of R&D capacity, impact through innovation lags. “There are a few success stories, but innovative companies are still not statistically significant,” says Albornoz. No Latin American country, with the exception of Chile, appears in the top 50 of the United Nations innovation rankings published in August.
“We are in an excellent economic moment, but our growth is based on low added-value products like oil, food, or mining: our challenge is to make science have an impact on industry,” says Glaucius Oliva, president of CNPq, Brazil's national center for scientific and technological development. Brazil invests more in R&D in the region (1.22% of its GDP) and publishes 55% of all Latin American scientific articles, according to 2010 data. However, the government wants scientists to get more involved at the sharp end of innovation.
To help this happen, in 2011 the Brazilian government launched the Science Without Borders program: 100,000 fellowships to be awarded over the next four years to scientists–from undergraduates to full professors. Recipients must go abroad, perform research in strategic technological areas (in companies or in applied research laboratories), and come home to Brazil to apply what they have learned. If they don't return, they must repay the grant. The government and private companies have assigned a total US$2.5 billion to the program. “Petrobras [the state-run oil company] and the Federation of Brazilian Banks, among others, are giving money because they see a big opportunity in the program,” says Oliva.
Science Without Borders also features two schemes for attracting foreign talent. For new PhDs, the Young Talents program offers a three-year postdoc in Brazil. For more experienced scientists, the Visiting Senior Researcher program places international scientists in Brazilian institutions for two months per year over three years, “In both cases, we offer a packet that includes a very competitive salary, money for research and for students or postdocs, as well as the opportunity to apply for Brazilian grants,” says Oliva.
In 1997 the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) created the Young Investigator Awards, grants for excellent senior postdocs, both from Brazil or elsewhere. The organization also sponsors a visiting researcher program for more senior scientists as well as the Sao Paulo Excellence Chair – a funding scheme that targets highly-accomplished foreign scientists and provides salary and research funds for working in Sao Paulo for twelve weeks a year over three to five years, says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP scientific director.
While Science Without Borders and FAPESP imports individuals into Latin America, some Latin American countries are bringing in entire institutions.
Conrad von Igel, executive director of InnovaChile, a program of the the Chilean Economic Development Agency (CORFO), explains the notion. “Developed countries have decades of experience in translating science into innovation: doing it from scratch would entail a large amount of risk and resources for us, so instead we want to import that capacity.”
Since 2009, this public organization has attracted four branches of international excellence centers to Chile, matching strategic sectors of the country's economy: CSIRO (Australia) in mining, Wageningen University (Netherlands) in food, INRIA (France)in information and communications technology and Fraunhofer (Germany) in biotechnolgy. A new application round for the program will start in September 2012
“The government will provide a grant of up to US$13 million to each one of these centers for four to eight years depending on the type of center, but they are required to match that grant, eventually by engaging with Chilean companies to raise a part of their financing,” explains von Igel. The host institution provides full or part-time scientists. “We are not competing by putting a lot of money on the table: what we offer is a stable political framework and a coherent, long-term commitment to science and innovation,” says von Igel. Chile is number one in Latin America in terms of publications per million inhabitants, and it hosts two of the five best universities of the region, according to the QS ranking.
This new call for international R&D centers also reflects a new government focus on corporate R&D as well as institutional efforts. Last January, the Chilean government approved an R&D tax incentive measure that will allow companies to claim a tax credit of 35% on all R&D expenditures and a tax deduction for the remaining 65%. “This means that corporate R&D centers selected for this program — while required to contribute proportionally more resources to the project in the beginning than institutional centers — can effectively make up that difference by claiming this tax incentive,” says von Igel.
He adds that these efforts will open opportunities for the best among local and international scientists and says they are making very public their search for candidates. “We have published openings for the excellence centers in top newspapers of the country: it's the first time that a research institution publishes a half page announcement!” he says. “The international R&D centers that have set up operations in Chile have already begun hiring large numbers of highly skilled scientists, which is shaking the local R&D market and opening up opportunities that simply weren't available locally before.”
Organizations based outside Latin America are also striving to attract scientific expertise into the region. UNESCO helped establish a branch of the Trieste-Italy-based International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), to Sao Paulo. “Three years ago, ICTP's director Fernando Quevedo decided to open branches around the world, so that scientists don't have to travel all the way to Italy,” explains Nathan Berkovits, director of the Sao Paulo branch. The institute remains internationally competitive by offering salaries, recruiting processes and working conditions comparable with equivalent institutions in the U.S., says Berkovits. The center also has reciprocal agreements with the Perimeter Institute in Canada and the CERN in Switzerland to promote cross applications and visits.
Another successful import comes from Germany. The Heidelberg Center, a branch of the Heidelberg University provides an example of how collaboration can prevent “brain drain,” explains Walter Eckel, the center's executive director. “Six Chilean professors of psychotherapy, who did their PhD in the seventies in Germany, contacted us when the center opened with the idea of developing a joint doctoral program in their field. The German doctoral students spend some time in Santiago collecting data and the Latin American students go to Heidelberg to attend some seminars and symposia”, he says.
The Heidelberg Center is managed by the University of Heidelberg, and funded by student fees and by Germany (in 2009 it won a €2.1 million grant until 2014 from the German government). One third of the staff is from Heidelberg, one third from Chile, and one third is comprised from the rest of Latin America.
“Heidelberg University is the most international of German universities: the Chilean center allows for joint programs and helps attract Latin American doctoral students,” Eckel explains. “Latin America was not especially attractive a decade ago, but there has been a shift of focus in the local government which has become more aware of the need to invest in R&D,” says Eckel.
All the new centers emerging in Latin America aspire to become hubs of scientific activity. “It is a very uneven area: for example, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina are much more advanced than other countries,” explains Berkovits. “We want to have visitors from less strong countries, and in 2014 we are planning to organize a workshop in Lima,” he adds. The Heidelberg center is exporting its expertise through training programs via collaborations with universities in Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.
Beyond importing institutions and capacity for research, Latin America is striving to create its own reference centers in research. Langebio, the Mexican National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, in Irapuato, was set up in 2006. Its horizons were on show from the outset with a futuristic building and an impressive frontline infrastructure.
“Mexico is one of the five megadiverse countries in the world: we saw an area of opportunity in exploring the genetics of our national biodiversity,” says Jean Philippe Vielle Calzada, a member of the founding group of the institution. Researchers at Langebio have worked on the genomics of plants specific to Mexico: sequencing the “palomero” pop corn (one of the most ancient variant of the crop) and are currently sequencing avocado, the most important “cash crop” for the Mexican economy.
The center is financed by the Federal Government of Mexico, the State Government of Guanajuato, and by international grants. It has 15 groups with plans to double the size within five years. “There are lots of openings,” says Vielle Calzada. Six of the current group leaders are from outside Mexico (Holland, UK, Germany, US, and Denmark) and three are Mexican scientists who worked abroad before its opening. “The creation of Langebio and other centers of its generation has driven universities to create degrees that did not exist before, like genomic sciences, systems biology, and biochemical engineering: we are surprised by the capabilities of the new graduates,” says Vielle Calzada.
Latin American scientists are enjoying a buoyant period, but they realize further investment is needed for the region's knowledge economy to really come into its own. “The investment in research is still largely insufficient,” says Vielle Calzada. Although the increases have been the starting line—the percentage of GDP devoted to research—was small, leaving lots of room for growth. “However, the GDP itself has increased a lot: this is why the percentage does not reflect the large growth in investment,” says Ricyt's coordinator Albornoz.
Berkovits, of ICTP in Sao Paulo, outlines areas which hinder R&D development in Latin America: “Poor public schools, lots of bureaucracy, and language requirements to access university positions are barriers that should be overcome.” But he urges scientists to look past these obstacles: “The US and EU economies are not doing well, so several countries in Latin America are becoming attractive places to work,” says Berkovits. “We think we can show that a scientist can do international-level research here.”