Saturday, March 31, 2007

Industry/University relationships in Brazil

The partnership between university, research centers and industries is a keystone of modern sciences. From the industry side this partnership leads to a better access to top quality science and technology at low cost, since most of the research facilities have been built by the state or by other institutions (meaning not this industry). Researchers and University professors are also usually well informed persons and keep in touch with the novelties in the world. From the university/research centers side, on the other hand, a close contact with the productive sector allows a retribution to the society, which usually "pays the bills" through an official budget and through direct investments. Not to mention also the complementation of this official budget, which is usually too short and is shrinking. I am aware, for example, that a considerable part of the budget of a leading German research center in materials science is composed of the so called "Drittmittel", money from research contracts with the DFG or directly with industries. This institution depends on these resources to the point that the salaries of some of the researchers is paid with them.

Brazil can be considered a newcomer in science. The particularities of the Portuguese model of colonization resulted , for example , in the foundation of the first "university institution" only in the XIX th century (a school of medicine in Salvador, Bahia). My own institution, the "Escola Politécnica de São Paulo" is considered one of the oldest engineering schools in the country, being founded only in 1894. The creation of the University of São Paulo, the leading university in the country, dates from 1934. This, together with the agrarian roots of the country resulted in the critical lack of specialized personal at the beginning of the industrialization, in the 1950's.

This was attacked by the governments with the foundation of grant agencies (CNPq by the federal government and the FAPESP, by the São Paulo State government),which started huge programs of grants to master and doctor studies. The lack of specialized was so critical that most of these new masters and doctors was absorbed by newly founded universities and not by the industries. The industries, on the other side, were either multinational corporations or family business and both, in most cases, were not interested in the specialization of their workers. The need for technological improvement in the industry was also damped by disastrous protectionist policies adopted specially by the military regime between 1964 and the mid 1970's.

Nowadays the situation is different. The new formed masters and doctors cannot be absorbed by universities and research centers and usually spend long times in post-doc positions, depending on official grants. In the industries, on the other side, the growth of unemployment rates lead their engineers and technicians to search the university looking for a master or doctor diploma in the hope of becoming protected. Three quarters of my master students, for example, work in the industry. This should be good news, apparently. I, for example, select the the themes of the master dissertations asking to the student about specific problems which could be solved at their work. My hope is, that doing so, I am contributing to a technology transfer to their workplaces. Unfortunately this does not happen. It is a common practice of the brazilian industries to ignore the efforts of their workers, disregarding technologies which would lead to productivity enhancement. I blame the above described history for this.

In my opinion this situation require a corrective action. The leaders at the industry should learn that working with the university is not only desirable, but also necessary for maintenance of their markets. The recent devaluation of the dollar against the brazilian real will prove fatal for technologically obsolete industries. We, the universities, are ready for this dialog. The next move belongs to the industrial partners.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Peer reviewing

Scientific publishing is a tricky matter. Different of other ways to publish thoughts (e.g. Blogs :-)), quality and seriousness must be assured before publication and supposedly based on objective criteria. A keystone of this process is the peer reviewing, adopted by most of the science magazines. To the ones who are not familiar with this, a manuscript submitted to a magazine is handled by an editor, who assigns one (and sometimes more than one) anonymous researcher worldwide, named the referee, to give and opinion about the quality and seriousness of the work. Usually the referee has veto power concerning the publication of the submitted magazine.

This process has the advantage of avoiding the publication of bad manuscripts, without producing bad feelings in the science community. Usually it works fine, but being myself author of several manuscripts and of referee reports about other authors' manuscripts, I detected several common 'errors' of the peer reviewing process, which I will list below. My intent is not blaming someone, I did myself most of these errors. I just want to start a discussion about this matter, which I consider quite important in the actual scientific world.

Peer review 'errors':

  1. Most referees (specially from English speaking countries) confuse their tasks with the one of a spellchecker, pointing at interminable lists of spell and grammar errors in the manuscript. Many times this is quite useful for other authors like me, who do not come from English speaking countries, but this should not be the main concern of a referee. He (she) should simply refuse a badly written manuscript or require more spellchecking before publication. I also observed that some referees point 'errors' which are actually a matter of writing stile. The author of the manuscript should be allowed to write his manuscript using his (her) own stile, provided it conforms with the standard of the language.
  2. Most referees fall under a strong temptation: finding something, at any cost, to criticize in the manuscript. It should be possible to find some submitted manuscript which is already ready for publication without interference of the referee. A good referee should admit this possibility before reading the manuscript and I am not meaning only those written by famous authors.
  3. When requiring mandatory changes in the manuscript, the referee should consider if what he (she) is requiring is feasible. I received reports about my own manuscripts requiring absurd providences which actually would inviabilize its publication. Usually withdrawing the submission and resubmitting to another magazine 'solves' the problem (simply due to the change of the referee).
  4. As there are good 'a priori' manuscripts, there are also bad ones. A referee should not fall under the temptation of accepting the manuscript at any cost, fearing to hurt the feelings of the author. One should, however, take care of not confusing his (her) opinion about what is wrong or right (specially what is or what is not modern) in science with the scientific value of the manuscript itself. This issue should be moderated by the editor , who should not restrict his (her) task concerning to a manuscript to forwarding it to the referee.
I believe this covers most of the problems in the peer review process, but, of course, I may have forgotten something. I would be very happy to hear your thoughts about this.

Cláudio G. Schön

Welcome remarks

For a long time I ignored the existence of Blogs. I am an "old timer" in matter of internet and this means that I frequently bother my friends and acquaintances with long e-mails containing my opinion about some matter. In the past (meaning about 10 years ago) this was acceptable, but nowadays, with the spam invasion, this became quite annoying (I speak from my own experience of deleting about 100 messages a day, after passing my browser's spam detector). On the other hand, I still want to express my opinions. The solution was the creation of this Blog.

My intent here, as the title suggests, is to present and to discuss my opinion about Science and Technology. This includes higher education, since I am a university associate professor (at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering of the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo) and Politics, which affects all of the former.

Have a nice reading!
Cláudio Geraldo Schön