Engineer Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, 63, the longest-serving scientific director at Fapesp (São Paulo State Research Foundation), leaves his position this month at a time when scientific evidence to guide policies has never been more important and where much of the hopes for resolving the Covid-19 pandemic, from vaccines to treatments, are deposited in science.
He says, however, that it is important that government officials and scientists do not promise short-term solutions that cannot be fulfilled.
“We will all suffer less if we base our answers more on science. But we cannot say that it will solve everything magically ”, he says.
He makes a positive assessment of the current response from scientists, just as it did at the time of Zika, five years ago.
“We have to understand that, even with ups and downs, the effort that the whole of Brazil has made in the last 60 years to create a research system and to train people shows that we are able to offer some answers at times like the one we are now . ”
Fapesp invests more than R $ 1 billion annually in scholarships and in research aid. More than 19,000 proposals were analyzed in 2019.
In his decade and a half of management at the largest state research promotion agency in the country, Brito Cruz left marks in the science and technology system, as a great stimulus for collaboration between universities and research institutes with companies and for the internationalization of research, with partnerships with major international centers, such as the National Institutes of Health (USA), the British Council (United Kingdom) and the German Center for Science and Innovation.
What he considers to be pending is to improve the lives of researchers in relation to the bureaucracy in which they are immersed, whether it is time to render accounts or fill out forms for importing reagents.
“Researchers from Unicamp, USP and Unesp are competing with colleagues from Stanford, Cornell and Oxford, but the degree of institutional support that these researchers have is 50 times better than what exists here.”
Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz was born on July 19, 1956, in Rio de Janeiro. He graduated in electronic engineering from ITA and did a master’s and doctorate in physics from Unicamp. He was a researcher at Bell Laboratories, AT&T, among other entities. He is a full professor in the quantum electronics department at Unicamp. He was dean of the university from 2002 to 2005 and president of Fapesp between 1996 and 2002. He assumed the scientific directorship in 2005 and will remain in office until April 2020.
He passes the baton to the doctor and neuroscientist Luiz Eugênio Mello, professor at Unifesp.
What took mr. to be scientific director of Fapesp and why was he in the position so long?
In 2004, I became interested in becoming a scientific director because, knowing a lot about Fapesp [já havia sido presidente da entidade entre 1996 e 2002], I thought I could contribute to the scientific and technological development of the state of São Paulo. And it seemed to me, at that time, that taking that position would give me joy, satisfaction. And it happened. I think I managed to do relevant things to improve the system and it was a very interesting and challenging 15 years.
If you had to highlight one or two of your accomplishments in that period, what would they be?
One was to encourage and get the research community in São Paulo to engage in more collaborative research, whether between universities, between universities and companies, whether in Brazil or with outside collaborators.
Before, there was a very good research system, very strong in the state of São Paulo, but it interacted little with other systems in Brazil and in the world and little with companies. It is not about encouraging collaboration through collaboration, but as an instrument to increase the quality of research.
Another contribution was the improvement with which Fapesp analyzes and selects research projects, making it more capable of evaluating quality and interacting with the scientific community so that that same community considers the evaluation legitimate, even when its projects are not. approved.
Were there any flaws?
It was not that there were failures. Every organization always needs to improve. I’m sure that whoever comes after me will improve the system even more. The system was good for the early 2000s and we perfected it using the experience of foreign organizations, because of the interaction we created, to make it better.
The way the public sees science has changed in these 15 years. At the same time that scientific dissemination gained space, we have never seen so much pseudoscience in evidence. Are we getting better or worse in the end?
During this period I saw in Brazil and in the world at least two important movements. One is that the level of skepticism and criticism of science has increased, coming close to or going beyond the point where it is healthy. Two examples that illustrate this are the hallucinated terraplanist theories and the movement against vaccines, which, in some way, attack science and its achievements.
The second movement, which may be related to the previous one, is the scientific community concerned with how to communicate better with society and with its representatives, such as governments, the Legislative Branch, the Judiciary. It is something that happened in Brazil and in the world.
The first is negative, but the second is positive and has helped bring science closer to people who pay taxes.
Is the result of this combination of forces positive?
A lot, without a doubt.
In a pandemic scenario, when people are not only concerned with health but also with money to feed themselves, does the credibility of science increase or decrease?
I think there are, again, two trends. On the one hand, public expectations are raised about how science can contribute to better coping with this terrible crisis. On the other hand, the crisis is big and can generate public impatience about the speed with which science can respond to the challenge.
It is important that the scientific community and its leaders are careful not to promise a short-term solution in situations where this cannot be said. What we know is that we will all suffer less if we rely more on science, but we cannot say that science will solve everything magically.
Do you think that government actions are based on science?
What I have seen so far, in the state of São Paulo and in Brazil, in the work of the Ministry of Health, is that a strategy for coping with the crisis based on scientific knowledge was created, which is very good.
At the same time, we see that, even when science gives us guidelines, there is a way between knowing them and implementing them in society that depends not only on science, but on politics. That is one of the reasons why you cannot say that science will solve everything.
In São Paulo there is greater predictability with funding for research, but not in the country. For many years, the budget has fallen or stayed the same, being eroded by inflation. How important is this predictability in responding to crises?
Here in São Paulo, a system of science and research and technology has been built in recent decades, which has a certain capacity for response. In the rest of Brazil, there was also this construction, but sometimes this response is less agile because the financing problem has existed especially since 2014.
The question of past financing is important, but it is not decisive for the answer that may come now. The determinant of this response is whether the Brazilian government is going to prioritize and support researchers at universities, hospitals, companies throughout Brazil who want to contribute to an emergency regime for the crisis that is coming.
There you can do a lot, as we see at UFRJ, UFRGS. They are organizations that have suffered a lot from the funding crisis, but even so, they are able to offer important ideas and contributions.
The main element is that we understand and appreciate that, even with ups and downs, the effort that the whole of Brazil has made in the last 60 years to create a research system and to train people, shows that we are able to offer some answers in moments like now. The permanence, the resilience of these researchers and these institutions make up for the recent financial crisis that has been happening, to some extent.
How should researchers organize themselves to give this answer? At the state, national or international level?
It needs to happen at all levels. If there are initiatives in all three, our lives will be better in the future. As one of the levels weakens, our lives get a little bit worse.
In Brazil, one of the major deficiencies in the development of the science and technology system is an irregular and limited degree of collaboration or cooperation between federal and state initiatives. I say irregular because there were times when this interaction was good and other times it was bad.
Instead of using the federal effort to mobilize local resources, federal resources were often used to replace local resources. Instead of adding, subtract.
How do you compare the scientific response given during the Zika crisis in 2015 to that of the new coronavirus in 2020?
The crisis now is much bigger than that. In the late 1990s, with the subject of the genome in vogue, researchers suggested making a network on the genomic diversity of viruses. When Zika arrived, those in the virus genomics network were able to offer strategies to deal with some aspects of the crisis brought about by the virus. Now, these same and others are getting involved in the response against the coronavirus.
In each crisis, the institution learns from the previous ones and does, I think, a little better.
How is the response to the current crisis being?
Fapesp made an announcement to select research projects to deal with the coronavirus with the concept of a trigger network. The crisis is so serious that we need researchers to dedicate more time to address this current problem. And the response has been excellent.
We will not wait for all projects to arrive, but we will analyze them as they enter, as this is an emergency. There are R $ 10 million for research projects involving universities and research institutes and R $ 20 million for those involving companies.
Partnerships with companies were a hallmark of his management.
Yes. One initiative is the Engineering Research Centers, or Applied Research Centers. These are far more comprehensive initiatives than short projects that last two or three years. They are research centers that can last up to ten years if all goes well.
It is a co-financing between Fapesp, the company and the universities where the researchers are located. The program was announced in 2014 and is working very well. And look, since then there has only been a crisis in Brazil. We will arrive at the number of 14 centers.
This program is the largest collaborative research program in Brazil between university and company. It has everything. For example, it has the center with GlaxoSmithKline, based at the Butantan Institute, to discover molecules for making medicines; another is the one announced at the end of last year, with IBM, on artificial intelligence, the first in the country.
It is a bold program, not only in terms of money (in total, R $ 1.2 billion is already committed), but because all of them deal with advanced research. It is not a consultancy center, it is to discover important things for the future of that company. It was something I enjoyed doing.
And there is something that Mr. would you like to have done and didn’t?
One thing I would like to have made more progress in is the question of support from institutions to researchers. Universities and research institutes must be charged and demanded to offer researchers professional support services for project preparation, submission and management, including accountability, reports and team meetings.
It is one of the points where we have advanced a lot. When I started, there should have been about ten offices that supported the researchers in a professional and serious way. It must be about 180 now, but there would need to be a lot more.
Researchers from Unicamp, USP and Unesp are competing with colleagues from Stanford, Cornell and Oxford, but the degree of institutional support that these researchers have is 50 times better than what exists here.
What are your next steps? Back to the gym? Will you enter politics?
Becoming a politician, I know I won’t. I will evaluate the opportunities and return to my laboratory at Unicamp, work with my colleagues there.
What mr. does to try to reach well until the hundred years?
Currently, wash your hands [risos]. Before, we needed to run, eat right, etc. Now we need all of that and also wash our hands all the time.