Geen underdogs meer

Nieuws | de redactie
8 april 2009 | The knowledge economy of major ‘new G20-nations’ such as India and Brazil is the fruit of effort rather than heritage. ScienceGuide spoke to Hernan Chaimovich and M. Vijayan, who head the Academy of Sciences in Brazil and India, respectively. “We take on the world.”

They were in Amsterdam for a Board Meeting of the InterAcademy Council. On March, 24, Lu YongXiang (China) and Robbert Dijkgraaf were elected co-chairs of the IAC.

ScienceGuide spoke with Hernan Chaimovich (Brazil) and M. Vijayan (India) about the development of science in their own countries. They have much in common. Both work in the field of biology. M. Vijayan has played a major role in the establishment of macromolecular crystallography research in India.

Hernan Chaimovich, a biochemist by training, has developed a research line in interfacial effects on chemical and biological reactivity using micelles and vesicles as models. Brazil and India have a bilateral scientific program. This program, both scientists stress, is a success because the partners are on a par and it is run by scientists only.

Gentleman, what do you see as the main challenge for the development of science in your
country?

Chaimovich: For countries like Brazil, which are not yet fully industrialized, the main challenge is to set up a system of science, technology and innovation. Most of ‘our’ countries do not have such a system. What is needed is a national, not a governmental, policy that incorporates science, technology and innovation into the nation as a whole. The development of a system is more important than stimulating particular fields, however good such fields may be. Curiosity-driven research has to be supported by not less than 40% of the budget, the other 60% of the budget for research has to be geared to knowledge that is more directly needed within the country.

All countries that have broken with that system, have failed. Just look around the world. All successful countries have used knowledge to build up their economy and social system for decades. In the past few years, Brazil, luckily, managed to set up a state policy – not a federal policy – for incorporating science, technology and innovation.

We are doing quite well with this. For example, we operate in the frontier of mathematics, a very abstract science. Our field of mathematics is small but fine. We are doing also well in the application of sciences. If you would look up the keyword ‘sugarcane’ in scientific literature, you would find that 35% of the references come from Brazil. You can imagine that the sugar industry and its development are of utmost importance for our country.

Vijayan: India is in some ways comparable. We started earlier, with ancient science even, to begin with. The present scientific development of India has no relation with ancient science, though. Our modern science started because of our relationship with the West.

It began as the unintended consequence of British explorations of the natural resources of India, in particular since the middle of the 19th century. In those days, much scientific work was done by amateurs.

When I studied in Oxford 40 years ago, as an Indian I felt like an underdog. That no longer exists. We take on the world. Our system of science really came into being after independence, in part because our founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a great visionary. Some 30 years ago, India was considered one of the ‘superpowers of the Third World’ and we are still growing.

But momentarily Brazil and China are doing better. This is a matter of concern. Money is not so much the problem, as having the people available to exploit knowledge and the investment in knowledge.

How do you assess the financial crisis? Are you afraid that it will threaten the progress of
science in your country?

Chaimovich
: As a scientist, if have no idea where this financial crisis is going nor where it will end. If this goes on, everybody will suffer, scientists not exempt. As vice-president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, I am encouraged that both President Obama of the United States of America and President Lula of the United States of Brazil have announced investments in the knowledge economy as an instrument to boost the economy.

In a meeting with scientists last Friday, Lula even jokingly remarked that he is in some respects an ‘older brother’ to Obama. Therefore he was glad his younger brother was taking measures comparable to his.

Vijayan: It is difficult to predict, but we know that the Indian economy is at present less integrated in the global economy than other major countries. So this means that we see in this crisis not yet an immediate danger for our scientific development.

Gasthoofdredacteur Frank Vandenbroucke heeft bij de Leuven-conferentie ook landen als India en Brazilië uitgenodigd om mee te denken in het Policy Forum. Hij bepleit een omslag in het denken –en handelen- bij de relaties met zulke nieuwe kennisgrootmachten.

Wij spraken onlangs de ‘KNAW’-voorzitters van Brazilië en India. Tijdens de Bologna-conferentie zullen die landen ook deelnemen in de discussies in het Policy Forum, zo begrepen wij.

“Dat klopt. Dat is erg ambitieus, ik erken dat. Maar  we zetten echt vensters en deuren open, we moeten vanuit Europa een globale strategie hebben voor de samenwerking rond kennis.

Het gaat daarbij niet om ontwikkelingssamenwerking of om de gedachte dat we landen zouden moeten helpen die zielig zijn. Die gedachte ligt nu toch echt ver achter ons. Het gaat ook niet meer om kleine, gemakkelijke akkoordjes die ontstaan omdat je elkaar tegenkomt, wat uitwisselingsbeurzen en dergelijke, maar die verder in het beleid niet zoveel voorstellen. Het gaat nu om structurele samenwerking.

Hier bij ons zie ik bij de hoger onderwijsinstellingen steeds meer oprechte aandacht voor strategische samenwerking met die landen. Stilaan toch kiest men voor grondig gestructureerde samenwerking met instellingen uit die landen.

In het Vlaams beleid zijn we die bocht nu aan het maken. We dachten: wij zijn goed, ze zullen ons wel vinden. Dat is natuurlijk niet zo. Je moet zorgen dat je kwaliteit zichtbaar wordt. We hebben ons daarin ook wel door Nederland laten inspireren, bijvoorbeeld met Study in Flanders.

We proberen ook onze instellingen aan te moedigen daar samen mee bezig te zijn en zich actief te positioneren in de wereld. Daarom is het ook goed dat we op de conferentie in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve actief in dialoog gaan met hoger onderwijsinstellingen in de rest van de wereld”.


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