To do Science is not enough, we have to bet


In Trieste, Italy, in a recent international gathering of scientific diplomacy organized by the Academy of Sciences for the Developing Countries (TWAS, its acronym in English) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, its acronym in English), I saw former NASA astronaut (the U.S. space agency) David Hilmers talk about cooperation between scientists of different nationalities in space. I also saw Norm Neureiter, former scientific adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Relations of the United States, talking about collaboration on scientific projects with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s a very different reality from that of the developing countries that were represented there. How to convince our politicians and governments to value science?

I asked this question to Ray Orbach, scientist responsible for negotiating the participation of the United States in thermonuclear experimental reactor to be built in France by a consortium of nine countries. There will be simulated in a controlled environment, temperatures as high as those found in the Sun, and that will make the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, producing helium gas and energy, lots of energy.

How to expect a country like Brazil, where the average citizen has little education – almost 70% of the population has not completed high school – and the government does not consider science, technology and innovation (ST & I) a priority – we have a fifth of the world’s average number of scientists by inhabitants – come participate in something so important for the future of humanity? This requires investments of frightening amounts of money, huge uncertainties, major conflicts of interest and too much risk. And what is worse, the results appear only in the long run: the operations of the reactor, for example, are referred to in 30 years.

Orbach had no answer. But in that moment, the president of TWAS, Romain Murenzi, a native of Rwanda, stood up and challenged me: “I was in Brazil and I can assure you, your country has a strong commitment to ST&I”. He mentioned the improvement of the position of Brazilian universities in international rankings and, as would be expected, the Science without Borders program.

The next day, when the representative of the Dominican Republic called for a stronger legislation to prevent the escape of academics from developing countries, Romain stood up again and said he was mistaken in thinking it was the lack of infrastructure that led scientists to escape their countries. In many of them, the political conditions were so unstable that researchers feared for his life, not by unavailability of equipment.

I understood later, talking privately with Romain that for him the fact of my country have invested in my education to the doctoral meant a deep commitment to ST & I. Of course if you compare Brazil with Rwanda will have to accept that our commitment to ST & I is strong. But if we compare with the U.S.? And what comparison is correct?

After seeing the two seconds video of the light touch of the leg of a paraplegic on the ball at the opening of the World Cup in Brazil, and the reaction of the scientific community on social networks, I found the answer.

The comparison did not matter. Only when we were willing to invest large sums of money on cutting-edge projects, risky and uncertain, we would unveil a big commitment to science.

Brazil has an enormous socioeconomic deficit that also inhibits its scientific development. It is virtually impossible not to be always one step behind our collaborators (and competitors). A strategy to escape this trap would be to walk an alternative path, where the long-term investment in basic education were accompanied by massive investments in fron
tier of sciences. Areas with potential for faster returns, but with greater financial contributions, as well as uncertainties and risks.

The answer was in that lawn. Brazil had committed! The result was not the expected. From the point of view of marketing – and it was a marketing event for the demonstration took place in the World Cup opening, not in a scientific congress – it was a failure. But scientifically the enterprise has not failed. It’s easy, retrospectively, to find the reasons why the venture failed. But cast the first stone who has never talked about an outcome before it was published. It will be up to the funding agencies to account for the invested resources and the scientific community to verify Nicolelis’ allegations. Which, incidentally, will be the only one to bear the embarrassment that was the difference between the promised and the delivered.

Scientific activity is risky and its results can never be predicted with accuracy. But it is part of the game. An expensive game, but precisely because of that, it requires a large commitment of the players. Four years ago, Nicolelis was the right bet. More than that, investing in science was the right decision for Brazil. Brazilian science can live without the 15 million USD that were allocated to Nicolelis’ research. What Brazil cannot, is to live without the fundamental commitment to risk in science.

MAURO F. REBELO, 42, PhD in biophysics, is professor at the Institute of Biophysics Carlos Chagas Filho, at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Free translation by the author from the article published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo on 21/06/2014

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