Interview: Dr. Glaucius Oliva on Building Brazilian Diplomacy through Science Education

Brazil’s Science without Borders program is a $3 billion initiative to promote educational exchanges in science and technology. AS/COA Online learned more about the program from Dr. Glaucius Oliva, the president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development.

"On foreign policy, it’s a tremendous investment in geopolitical terms to have a strong insertion of talented students and researchers around the world. In the very first year of her government, the president decided to postpone the decision about buying a large number of fighter jets, but she didn’t blink when she decided to invest $3 billion in this scholarship program."
As president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, Dr. Glaucius Oliva promotes science and technological research in Brazil. He serves as director of the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo, São Carlos where he has taught since 1982. Oliva founded and coordinates several biomolecular programs, leading a team of 80 researchers to focus on treatments for tropical and infectious diseases. In 1997, he conducted protein crystallization experiments aboard a NASA space shuttle, and in 1999 Time and CNN named him one of the “50 Latin American Leaders for the New Millennium.” AS/COA Editorial Associate Rachel Glickhouse spoke to Oliva about Brazil’s ambitious new program to invest in education, science, and technology and the significance of international partnerships.
AS/COA Online: What are the goals of the Science without Borders program, and how is it going so far?
Dr. Glaucius Oliva: Science without Borders is a Brazilian government program that aims to provide up to 100,000 fellowships for students and researchers to have the opportunity to study or do research at top universities around the world. This program aims to increase the mobility of students and scientists, trying to build skills that are necessary to fully insert the Brazilian economy into the world knowledge-economy. This program tries to get the best talents that we have in Brazil and offer them the opportunity to study in our partner countries. We have a very strong university and research system in Brazil, but we need to have more interaction and more cooperation with equivalent institutions abroad.
The program was launched last July by President Dilma Rousseff. At the time, she announced that the Brazilian government would provide 75,000 fellowships. She challenged the private sector in Brazil to provide another 25,000. And within three or four months, we’ve managed to put together these extra 25,000 fellowships coming from large companies in Brazil, like Petrobras, banks, and industry.
So far the program has been really successful. We did a pilot program with the United States, which started in August. We made a limited call for students and we had 7,500 applicants. The initial plan was to provide 1,500 fellowships. There are already hundreds of students that came to American universities. In December, we did an official launch, with the opportunity to go to France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States. Altogether, this accounts for 12,000 spots, and in less than a month we had 36,000 applicants. This is just for undergraduate students to study for a year at a top university. We also have fellowships for PhD students, for graduate students, and postdocs. We already have about 2,000 students who were selected for the graduate program.
Now we’re doing a roadshow here in the U.S. with a team of leaders, presidents, and provosts of Brazilians universities, visiting American universities. It’s amazing how much interest this program has raised among our partners here.
AS/COA Online: What are the goals of this visit with Brazilian university leaders?
Oliva: This program, although it’s focused on the students and researchers, is not just a program about training. It’s a program about creating and fostering cooperation between our research institutes and universities in Brazil with the equivalent partners here in the United States. It’s important to create these bonds. So we brought representatives from our best universities. It’s a team of 24 representatives who were divided in three groups of eight people. One group went to the East Coast, another went to the Midwest, and another to the West Coast.
It’s a very busy schedule, visiting two or three institutions every day, meeting with the leadership of these institutions. It’s amazing. At every university that we visited, they are creating many opportunities for Brazilian students to come; they’re very much willing to receive students. Those that have received Brazilian students are very happy with them. We are doing a really good job of selecting really top quality, talented students.
The idea behind the program is to invest in people. If we want to create economic links, this is the best way. Each one of these students that spends a year here creates a network of relationships. When they go back to Brazil to work in industry or academics, whenever they need anything for their company or institution in Brazil, they will always come to the place where they were trained. These bonds in education will also be reflected in more economic and cultural links between our countries.
AS/COA Online: President Obama launched the 100,000 Strong Initiative in Latin America, which is a very similar initiative that aims to send 100,000 American students to study abroad in Latin America, including Brazil. Why is it important for Brazil to receive students as well?
Oliva: Science without Borders is a very true statement: discoveries and the frontier of knowledge is obviously an international initiative. It’s so important for the Brazilian students to receive students from abroad, to create and strengthen these bonds in economy and culture, and, of course, reflect the quality of the science that is being produced in our countries.
There are questions that cannot be tackled by individual countries alone. For example, climate change affects the whole planet. There are things that we are studying in the Amazon forest that affect climate in regions in the Northern Hemisphere. In the same way, if you analyze gas emissions here, that may affect climate in other places in the world. It’s important to have projects that we can tackle together.
Indeed, this program by President Rousseff was inspired by the visit that President Barack Obama made to Brazil last March, when he effectively challenged the Brazilian president to match these initiatives. He mentioned the number of Chinese students that study in the United States and said that we should match these numbers.
Earlier this year, we counted about 8,000 Brazilian students studying here in the United States. We hope to raise this number to 50,000. We would also like to receive more American students in our universities. This delegation is doing exactly that—explaining the facilities and the strengths that we have in Brazil. We are currently leaders, for example, in deep-sea drilling for oil and gas and renewable energies. Our fleet of cars in Brazil predominantly runs on ethanol. We have a very strong tropical agricultural research in Brazil. These are things that can be shared between our countries and strengthen our economic links.
AS/COA Online: President Rousseff will visit the U.S. in April, and she reportedly wants to visit MIT and Harvard during her trip. How has the Science without Borders program changed Brazil’s foreign policy agenda?
Oliva: I think the insertion of innovation, science, and technology is a landmark of President Rousseff’s government as a central theme for the next decade of the Brazilian economy.
Our economy is doing very well, a result of careful handling of the markets and how the economy was structured. It’s also because we are exporters of large amounts of food. The mining industry in Brazil is also really booming. But it’s important for the country not to just rely on commodities. It has to promote the full industrialization of the country, and that was President Rousseff’s idea.
On foreign policy, it’s a tremendous investment in geopolitical terms to have a strong insertion of talented students and researchers around the world. In the very first year of her government, the president decided to postpone the decision about buying a large number of fighter jets, but she didn’t blink when she decided to invest $3 billion in this scholarship program.
So this is a sign that a very good way of working for peace is to expose the leadership of your country to the world, have the leadership from other countries come to your country, and create bonds.
AS/COA Online: Why is the particular relationship between the United States and Brazil so important when it comes to technology and innovation?
Oliva: The world has changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. New players came into place such as China, India, Korea, and Singapore. They’re creating a new scenario where technology is an asset that a country must have.
But our countries have so much more common in terms of culture, in terms of demography, in terms of origins. So it makes a lot more sense and we’d benefit much more if we could look to each other and create more opportunities for this interchange between our countries, instead of just looking to big markets like China and India. I think in terms of technology we have a lot to build up together, and this is one of the major objectives of the Science without Borders program.
AS/COA Online: Some companies in Brazil are having trouble finding highly skilled workers. With that in mind, how does the private sector come into play when it comes to this type of initiative?
Oliva: That was one of main reasons why the private sector responded so quickly and positively to President Dilma’s challenge for the fellowships in this Science without Borders program. All of the companies are aware that they need personnel—not just from them, but also to create the basis of the economy.
For example, the Federation of the Brazilian Banks is giving 6,500 fellowships. This is not just for people that will go back and work for banks; they know that the Brazilian economy will benefit from having good leadership and trained people that will provide the growth of industry and the economy in general. These people, of course, benefit the banking system. So it’s an investment in the future. Also, Petrobras has provided 5,000 fellowships. It sees it as an investment in the whole development of the country: creating markets, new industries, new technologies.
We also have fellowships to attract young talents, like recent postdocs who want to go to Brazil and work there. We have three-year fellowships, which are very attractive, not just for the value of the fellowship but also the research money that is offered. We also have fellowships to attract established scientists that may not want to move to Brazil, but we offer them a fellowship to go for two months every year for three years. When they go to work in a research lab in Brazil, they can have an extra postdoc to work for them.
We’re also offering fellowships for people in industry. This is a new idea where a company can apply for fellowships for their employees. They can send scientists and engineers, for example, who want to work for a partner company, a service provider, or an R&D center in Brazil. We’ll provide an extra fellowship, and the person keeps his salary.
Companies see the Science without Borders program as a real opportunity, since they get access to young talent. In many cases, they are offering places for students to come back and work as trainees when they graduate. They will certainly benefit broadly from this program.