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.
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