A ‘Leap’ for R&D, Science, and IT Pros

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BRAZIL NEEDS MORE TECHNOLOGY EXPERTS if it’s going to become a provider of IT services on a global scale. Brazil needs more scientists and engineers if it’s going to become a world-class innovator — and especially if it’s going to succeed with the “Greater Brazil” plan announced last week. The government’snew program to offer 75,000 scholarships to technology and science students should help the country move toward those goals.

The Science Without Borders initiative starts off with US$2.02 billion/R$3.16 billion in government funding to send Brazilian students and researchers abroad to study the subjects that are key to making the country more competitive — to make “a quantum leap,” as Aloizio Mercadante, minister of Science and Technology, put it.

The plan is to send Brazilian undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc scholars to “top international institutions,” like MIT. A small number of researchers will also be imported to work with Brazilian scientists.

But it’s impossible to say at the moment how soon the program will help start solving Brazil’s shortage of technology workers. According to a study by Right Management, the country currently could use about 70,000 IT professionals — and that figure is projected to be 200,000 by 2013. Certainly Science Without Borders isn’t going to crank out enough professionals to fill that gap.

The government list of fields of study specifies “computer and information technology” but also includes the hard sciences, engineering, biotech, nanotech, “technology for transition to a green economy,” agriculture, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, marine sciences, and the big three: oil, gas, and coal.

So, how many scholarships will be awarded to IT students — to the men and women who will staff Brazil’s growing IT industry — is not clear. Energy is a huge part of Brazil’s future and will likely grab a big piece of the scholarship money (getting all that oil from the ocean floor, for example, is going to require innovative methods).

The Other Shortage

The program might end up being more of a catalyst for research than for putting qualified bodies into seats at Brazilian software and services companies. Increasing its patent portfolio is important for Brazil’s economic future. “Patent numbers remain low and R&D activities sluggish,” according to a UNESCO’s Science Report 2010. Brazil lags behind the other BRICs in patent numbers: China has 1,655 vs. Brazil’s 103. That same report says Brazil suffers from a lack of Ph.D. graduates.

Science Without Borders promises more of those Ph.D.s, and those people, while requiring investment now, would ultimately be a boon for business. “A business that innovates opens markets and expands, grows ahead of competition, and is more profitable, which creates dynamism in production,” says João Carlos Ferraz, director of planning at BNDES, Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development.

Some observers who applaud the new program say that government cannot do it alone. Government officials said they hope the private sector will pitch in with 25,000 additional scholarships. The Ministry of Science and Technology reported that last year the government and private companies spent about the same on R&D but in China, private companies invest three times more than the government.

Although Science Without Borders is not going to solve Brazil’s shortage of advanced IT workers or patents quickly, it is a big step in the right direction, and it sends the message that the country is willing to invest in its people and thus its future. It’s specially encouraging after the Rousseff administration announced a 23% cut of the 2011 science budget in February.

Perhaps Dilma and her advisors took to heart the message of an open letter from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Association for the Progress of Science late last year:

“Science is a factor in the development of nations, and Brazil is heading that way…. This evolution of Brazilian science arose from a state policy that made continued and increasing investment for several decades — and especially in recent years — in the training of human resources for higher education and research and knowledge production…. This policy needs to be consolidated and expanded, rather than suffer setbacks.”