The diaspora returns: expat scientists head back home to a prosperous new Brazil

Brazilian cellular biologist Dr. Andrea Dessen de Souza e Silva (center, dressed in white) with her team at the Institut de Biologie Structural in Grenoble, France

Brazil is rolling out the red carpet to attract senior foreign scientists – and some expatriate Brazilian researchers are also stepping onto it as a first move on the long road home.

Dr. Andréa Dessen de Souza e Silva is one Europe-based Brazilian scientist who has seen the career possibilities of carrying out research projects and teaching in her native land – even only for part of each year. So a new “São Paulo Excellence Chair” (SPEC) scheme to bring visiting foreign professors to institutes and universities in Brazil’s most developed state, is proving just the ‘ticket home’ for her.

“I’m delighted: It’s a very natural step for any Brazilian who has been 25 years away from home,” says Andréa, a research biochemist who specializes in the bacterial cell wall and toxin secretion systems, using X-ray crystallography to study ways in which bacterial virulence can be contained. Based at Grenoble in France, she is the tenured leader of a ten-person research team in bacterial pathogenesis at the 230-strong foundation linked to the university there, the Institut de Biologie Structurale (IBS).

And now – as the first-ever Brazilian recipient of the São Paulo Excellence Chair Award (SPEC) – Andréa is also building a research team at LNBio (Laboratório Nacional de Biociências) at Campinas, in São Paulo state. She is already setting up and staffing her Campinas lab, and developing ties between what she calls ‘team Brazil’ and ‘team France.’

During the next three years she’ll make several trips yearly to carry out teaching and coordinate the research in Brazil. SPEC holders are expected to spend up to three months a year in-country during their tenure, and to coordinate research with local post-docs and staff scientists. Her scientific field is located upstream of medical or pharmaceutical research, providing the deep insights on pathology necessary to eventually develop new drugs.

In late 2012, Andréa and a senior researcher from New York were named as the pioneer SPEC recipients in the program financed by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). This is Brazil’s largest regional grant-funding institution, with an annual budget of over US$550 million. Over the last 50 years FAPESP has financed more than 100,000 researchers in all branches of knowledge, as part of its mission to foster development in São Paulo state. Every year, FAPESP also sponsors around 30 foreign ‘Young Investigators’ at Post-doc level who spend time at Brazilian universities.

For a long-term expatriate with a life, a stable career and a young family in Europe, Andréa’s career move represents a big step. But, she says, “this was as much an emotional as a financial decision. Brazil is going through its very own “yes we can” moment and when a window of opportunity opens, it would be crazy not to participate.”

That said, Andréa has no plans to quit Grenoble, where her research with IBS has solid funding from French and other European institutions. Situated just south of Alpine ski resorts, Grenoble also offers leisure and lifestyle radically different to tropical Brazil.

But perspectives change: Brazil is now a good place to work. Brasília’s government finally realised that Latin America’s largest nation cannot ever hope to make the transition to a developed “knowledge economy” versed in science and technology, without a dramatic upgrade in skills and learning.

That has unlocked an academic bonanza. As well as sending 100,000 science undergraduates abroad as part of a US$1.65 billion “Science Without Borders” program, federal and regional grant-funding institutions are beginning to attract foreign-based senior scientists and post-docs as part of the plan to accelerate the “brain gain” process through knowledge sharing.

For its part, the scale and stability of FAPESP’s own endowment funding allows it to underwrite very substantial lab costs and complex projects, some stretching out over a decade. It has recently financed some “big ticket” science hardware, such as a supercomputer and an oceanographic survey ship – all part of its mission to foster research and development in Brazil’s most economically advanced region.

Moreover, this is hardly the first time that Brazil has tapped the international academic community to fast-track its development. In 1934 the Sorbonne sent a team of French academics (including the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) to set up the University of São Paulo. In 1947 the Brazilian Air Force set up the Institute of Aeronautical Studies with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And in 1967 the University of Campinas (where Andréa is now working) was established with the help of US physicists from Bell Labs.

Yet as they cast their nets abroad for talent to lead a new charge of science-based development, these universities are encountering a sizable diaspora of Brazilian scientists who have for long been entrenched at mid-levels in European and American research institutions.

Some are viewing Brazil’s dramatic improvements in economic prosperity, social infrastructure, and the new priority given to higher education, with a distinctly favorable eye. The squeeze on developed economy university budgets and economic gloom outside Brazil is further helping that process. The Economist recently reported that the flow of Latin American migrants (including Brazilians) to Spain had slowed drastically and is now reversing.

There are no available statistics for the size of the highly-qualified Brazilian ‘science diaspora.’ But ever since 1951 two federally funded institutions — CNPq and CAPES — have each been funding up to 9,000 Masters and PhD qualifications a year, around a quarter of them overseas. Regional bodies like FAPESP (with its 12,000 post-docs) added significantly to the total.

While Brazilians are for the most part intensely patriotic and unwilling to forsake what can be one of the world’s most agreeable lifestyles, over the years there has been a shifting collage of reasons for academics to remain abroad after qualification, so denying the country its intended “brain gain.”

Until 1985 there was military rule that forced some away some (including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso who lectured at the Sorbonne). Then came almost two decades of inflation, economic turbulence and democratic ‘growing pains’ that starved higher education. And though tenured posts at Brazilian federal universities offered secure pensions and agreeable hours, neither the pay, the quality of students or the research resources were attractive to the truly ambitious. Above all, low levels of national self-esteem encouraged many to seek a life elsewhere.

Now, all these reasons for staying away have simply vanished as the economy has boomed and society matured. Commentators are even predicting a new “Golden Age” of skills-rich immigration for Brazil.

If Brazil looks highly attractive to foreigners, then it is now doubly so for overseas Brazilians of all capabilities. With the right incentives, a small army of expatriate scientists could soon follow Andréa’s lead.

If so, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Some things that senior scientists — whether Brazilian or foreign — will find: Good equipment, a willingness by support staff to bridge cultural or logistical gaps, but above all the engagement and enthusiasm from post-grad research teams. There’s a kind of “service culture” for higher education.

“There’s a great feeling: people are so happy to see you and to help out, so it’s been a very positive experience,” says Andréa. In short, some of the very same things that might attract senior international scientists to work in Brazil, are also attractive to returning Brazilians. Andréa finds only one thing still missing among students and postdocs: the courage and confidence to tackle truly difficult projects.

After the grant application with FAPESP was successful and the LNBio project developed, Andrea was able to send David Neves, a Brazilian post-doc working with her in Grenoble, back to Brazil to become the backbone of her new research lab. The project has its own brand new and well-equipped labs. And, says Andrea, “we have a synchrotron right next door – what more could we ask?” Bacterial pathogenesis studies demand advanced techniques – including electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography. So Andréa’s project has built close ties with nearby LNNano, Brazil’s National Laboratory of Nanotechnology.

Of course, the wider objective of FAPESP’s SPEC program is to deepen scientific cooperation, not simply bring highly qualified Brazilians home. In Andréa’s case the international targets are ambitious. In addition to the ties between her own labs in Campinas and Grenoble, LNBio is now connected to a pan-European bacterial wall collaboration project involving the Institut Pasteur in Paris, the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and the iRTSV, also in Grenoble.

This order of international scientific collaboration is becoming the standard for FAPESP, which since 2006 has evaluated more than 300 joint proposals, bringing together top international universities and their counterparts in São Paulo.

Through collaborations like these, Brazil is slowly pushing its way up the international scientific research rankings. UNESCO’s Science Report 2010, says Brazil’s share of scientific articles rose from 0.8% in 1992 to 2.7% in 2008. Meanwhile the Royal Society’s 2011 report, Knowledge, Networks and Nations highlights Brazil as a “rising power of science” with an average 8% annual growth in scientific articles published.

Andréa’s own scientific career may be flying high; yet she still quotes from the poem that every Brazilian child learns at school. Perhaps this explains why in the end, she and other Brazilian scientists will be returning.

In the Exile’s Song, the 19th century Brazilian Romantic poet Gonçalves Dias writes of the powerful lure of home, its tropical vegetation and its exotic birdsong: “Minha terra tem palmeiras,
Onde canta o sabiá.”

Richard House


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