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Science in Northeastern Brazil

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Brazil is hardly a scientific backwater. The Brazilian government became serious about science several decades ago, and as the Brazilian economy has expanded -- especially over the last 10 or 12 years -- the government has increased support for science even more. According to an article in Science, in 2010 Brazil had moved up to 13th in the list of countries with the most scientific publications. (In the most recent data, they seem to have dropped back to number 14.)

There's a lot of good science to be done in northeastern Brazil, and -- assuming you speak the language -- plenty of opportunity.

But all is not sun and sandy beaches: Scientists say Brazil has long suffered from an excess of bureaucracy. Quoted in another article in Science, from 2004, Stevens Kastrup Rehen, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says, “To give you an idea of how bureaucratic the process is, an electrophoresis apparatus that I ordered as an undergraduate was held up by customs until the end of my Ph.D.”

Another problem -- hardly unique to Brazil -- is an uneven geographic distribution in the support for science, and the economic and social benefits that come from it. Brazil's scientific wealth is concentrated in the south and southwest, especially in the two big cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

But lately that distribution has improved -- first, because Brazil’s strong economy has allowed added support for science and, second, because of shifts in the government's priorities. Today, nearly 30% of the country's research funds are directed to institutions in the northern and western states. Another big chunk of cash is being spent on the expansion of the region’s educational institutions. Scores of academic jobs have been created on the region’s federal campuses.

This package of stories, this introduction and the three related profiles linked below, is part of an experimental series in which a location is chosen at random -- actually using Google Maps and a random-coordinate generator -- to explore what it's like to do science there. Our first random excursion took us to Namibia. Our latest attempt landed us (after a couple of nautical excursions) at Latitude -5.88388, Longitude -35.20612, near Natal in northeastern Brazil; while small by São Paulo standards, greater Natal is home to more than a million people.

Brazil's new investments and changing priorities have made this part of Brazil a far better place to do science than it used to be. But scientists working there say the bureaucracy and other inefficiencies that have long plagued the nation remain oppressive and difficult to navigate.

Shifting Sands in Northeastern Brazil

One such scientist is Selma Jeronimo, who started her research at Natal's Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in the mid-1990s with “nearly nothing,” she says. The contrast in the scientific climate between then and now, she says, is “like night and day.” Yet, even as the money flows into her lab, Jeronimo’s progress is hampered by continuing inefficiencies that can keep her waiting months for the reagents she and her students need to carry out their studies on leishmaniasis and leprosy, both common diseases in northeastern Brazil.

Brazil's Science Culture Shock

Physicist Mauro Copelli, who studied in the United States and returned to Brazil years ago to start an independent career, says he spends much of his time -- time he'd rather be spending in the laboratory -- dealing with bureaucratic red tape. So he is working to help change state and federal laws that can slow everything from minor purchases to major hires.

Building Up Brazilian Brain Research

In northeastern Brazil's scientific circles, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis is difficult to miss. Nicolelis made headlines a few years ago at Duke University with his science fiction–sounding experiments with primates and mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, and again when, a few years later, he set up a neuroscience institute in Natal. Nicolelis's ambition, partly realized, is to harness science to support social and economic development in the region.

The verdict: There's a lot of good science to be done in northeastern Brazil, and -- assuming you speak the language -- plenty of opportunity. But you have to be patient. Then again, if you want to change things for the better, you probably shouldn't be too patient: Better to press strategically for change, our sources say.

Susan Gaidos writes from near Portland, Maine.