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Brazil's Science Culture Shock

Courtesy of Mauro Copelli

Last year, physicist Mauro Copelli and four other scientists at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in Recife, Brazil, received a grant from the federal and Pernambuco state governments to build a neurophysiology lab. Since then, the scientists have acquired new computers and equipment for the lab and are awaiting the building's completion.

“We live in kind of a paradox. It’s not that we don’t have money for research. For the past 10 years we have had an increasing amount of money that allowed people to get projects going. But we lack personnel, and we lack the flexibility of the law to just spend the money.” -- Mauro Copelli

Unfortunately, it's taking a long time. There aren't enough engineers to finish the building, Copelli says, and red tape and a shortage of engineers makes it hard to hire new ones.

Copelli's frustration -- about the difficulty of getting things done in a system that, despite a recent infusion of cash, remains unwieldy and impoverished by decades of neglect -- seems common among scientists working to create or overhaul research programs, especially in the country's less-developed northeast. “We live in kind of a paradox,” Copelli says. “It’s not that we don’t have money for research. For the past 10 years we have had an increasing amount of money that allowed people to get projects going. But we lack personnel, and we lack the flexibility of the law to just spend the money.”

Science in Northeastern Brazil

This article is part of a feature focused on doing science in northeastern Brazil. For more information on this topic, read:

Science in Northeastern Brazil (An Introduction)

Shifting Sands in Northeastern Brazil

Building Up Brazilian Brain Research

Losing agility

Copelli, a theoretical physicist, grew up in São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, and completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics at the University of São Paulo. He received a doctorate in 1999 from Limburgs Universitair Centrum (now known as Hasselt University) in Belgium and then came to the United States to work as a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego.

There, Copelli explored the physical properties of complex systems. He wanted to return to Brazil, but hiring at Brazil’s public universities was (and is) determined by a government-run competition where candidates compete to be hired either as a postdoc or as a tenured professor. “There’s nothing in-between,” Copelli says. And during his graduate training days, even those contests stopped, Copelli says.

In 2001, those contests started up again. Copelli applied for a postdoc position at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), a large university located in the city of Niterói, a few miles from Rio de Janeiro. “There was a huge rush of people like me, former Brazilians who wanted to get back in,” Copelli says.

In 2003, when the Brazilian government began pumping money into research and education, he applied for his current position at the university in Recife, which ranks among the top 10 Brazilian universities in both size and scientific production. The institution has long been regarded highly for its studies in physics, computer sciences and chemistry, though years of underfunding had left the university short of lab and classroom space.

Soon after his move, Copelli met his wife and started a family. Today he heads a small research group -- himself and three graduate students -- studying how the behavior of neurons in groups differs from the behavior of isolated neurons.

The move to Recife has worked out well, Copelli says, personally and professionally. But he still feels that he is “fighting everyday.” Laws detailing how federal grants are handled and what they can pay for slow everything from minor purchases to major importations and hiring.

Several years ago, when he received a $10,000 equipment grant, Copelli was required to seek quotes from numerous suppliers to prove he was buying from the lowest bidder. He had to show that the seller's state and federal taxes were in good standing -- a time-consuming task, he says. After the purchase, he had to ensure that his receipts conformed to all state and federal laws. “It makes life harder because you lose agility and you lose speed to do whatever you have to do," he says. "You spend less time on research and more time just working through the bureaucracy.”

In many other countries, and even at some institutions in the better-developed parts of Brazil, a lab manager might handle such tasks. But the rules governing Brazilian federal universities make it difficult to pay a lab manager with grant money, Copelli says.

Building a scientific culture

The lack of a scientific culture also slows research. UFPE is highly regarded for physics and is considered one of the best universities in northeastern Brazil, Copelli says, but research isn’t the top priority: Because the Ministry of Education pays faculty salaries, the emphasis is on teaching. Scientists with tenured positions are required to spend at least 8 hours a week in the classroom, making it difficult to find time for research. And, “There’s growing pressure for us to teach more than that because we need more engineers and more high school and elementary teachers,” he says. Also, “We have to spend more time teaching because we don’t have the culture of teaching large classes in Brazil,” he says. “People just don’t believe that this is a correct way to teach.”

Copelli thinks building a scientific culture in northeastern Brazil will require changes in several areas: the way students are taught, the way faculty members deal with funding agencies, and the federal laws and rules that govern hiring. Recently, foreigners have been allowed to take admission exams to become faculty members in Brazil’s federal universities, Copelli notes -- but, “currently, all examinations in the country, including those to apply for a postdoc or faculty position, have to be done in Portuguese,” he says. “That means that many talented people cannot come, even if they want to.”

A sense of purpose

If it weren't for such obstacles, northeastern Brazil would be an ideal location for young international scientists seeking independence, Copelli says. “We have a lot of academic freedom here, and that could perhaps attract people from abroad who don’t want to be working in somebody else’s lab.”

As a member of Brazil’s “Commission for the Future,” Copelli is chipping away at the hurdles that slow scientific progress in Brazil. “There’s a sense of purpose in what we’re doing here,” he says. “We’re at the point where we have the money, we have a large number of Ph.D.s graduating in each year, and we have a large number of universities. We just need to unlock the system to let it go.”

Susan Gaidos writes from near Portland, Maine.