Professor Osvaldo Novais de Oliveira Junior (IFSC-USP), member and former president of SBPMat, is the author of a text published in Folha de São Paulo, one of the main Brazilian newspapers, on the blog ‘Darwin e Deus’ (column by science journalist Reinaldo José Lopes) about the success and impact of Brazilian science. In the text, the professor describes three types of knowledge resulting from science and highlights the importance of increasing the number of scientists and professionals trained in research environments in order to meet the demands of the Brazilian population.
Here follows the text:
The greatest proof of the success of Brazilian science is at the Planalto Palace. Were it not for the excellence of Brazilian medicine, the result of decades of scientific work, today there would be another President of the Republic.
Without the competence of the doctors of Juiz de Fora who promptly attended the then candidate after the stabbing episode, as well as the doctors in São Paulo who performed the other surgeries, President Bolsonaro, even if he survived, would not have recovered so quickly to the point of working normally shortly after the attack.
In my opinion, the connection between facts that change the direction of the country and Brazilian science does not seem to have been made as of yet. This is probably so because the effect of the different forms of knowledge that science creates has not been analyzed in detail.
Doing science generates three types of knowledge. The most visible and tangible is the knowledge that generates, in a relatively short time, technology and solutions for humanity. It is the knowledge transferred from scientists to technology innovators, which in the 21st Century has been accomplished mostly by the great technological powers, that is, the United States, China and other Asian countries, and some countries in Europe. Here, the majority term is essential, as it is not enough to have quality science and technology, as knowledge transfer only occurs effectively when there is a volume of research, products and solutions.
The two other types of knowledge are less visible to society in general. One is the knowledge derived from the curiosity and perseverance of humans in understanding how the universe works, without concern if there will be any practical application. Often, the application exists, but it will only become evident long after such knowledge has been generated. Perhaps the most emblematic example today is Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was created with an abstract conception, incomprehensible even for scientists of the time, to explain the phenomena of nature that had no correlation with people’s daily lives.
As far as I know, Einstein never suggested the possibility of a direct application to his theory. Well, the Theory of Relativity is now essential for positioning systems (GPS). Without taking into account the Theory of Relativity, determining the position of a person or object on Earth would be wrong for about 10 km with the errors accumulated in a week of GPS operation. In short, without the Theory of Relativity there would be no GPS or the navigation systems we use in our daily lives.
The third type of knowledge has so little visibility that it is confused with the result of university education. It is knowledge that does not lead directly to new technologies, but serves to absorb and adapt technologies, develop local solutions and allow high-level functioning of systems that depend on technology. This type of knowledge is incorporated by qualified professionals trained at research universities.
What is not always understood is that professionals with this level of skill and competence can only be trained in an environment where science is done. In medicine, to stay on the initial example, the incorporation and improvement of new technologies are usually done by doctors with sophisticated training, with postgraduate degrees and active participation in research programs conducted at universities of excellence.
For those who consider this third type of knowledge is of little relevance, I emphasize that countries with better quality of life and higher development rates are not on the list of those that generate more technology. I refer to Scandinavian countries and others like Switzerland and Luxembourg, which, due to the size of their population, are not large enough to generate a lot of technology – compared to the largest technology-producing countries. However, without any exception, all these countries with high quality of life have high density in generating knowledge of the third type, with excellent science.
And Brazil? Our country has outstanding examples of knowledge generation of the first type, with science providing competitive technology worldwide in sectors such as aeronautics, oil extraction in deep waters and agribusiness. Other sectors have created relevant technologies, albeit with less economic impact.
Unfortunately, despite the quality of science carried out in these sectors, density is low and we generate very little technology when the dimensions of the country and its population are taken into account. This is explained by the small size of our scientific system. Despite the great advance in recent decades, the number of scientists per inhabitant is still much smaller than that of developed countries. In this regard, Brazil does not appear on the list of the 20 best ranked countries.
A similar situation occurs in knowledge oriented to the development of local solutions, which I classified as a third type. Brazil trains excellent professionals at its research universities, which in turn incorporate new technologies and create solutions for society in many areas. This results in the country’s excellence in areas such as medicine and health, engineering, agriculture and livestock, and in many other areas.
Again, we have the density problem: the number of trained professionals, and their role in generating knowledge, is insufficient to benefit the entire Brazilian population. This insufficiency is at the root of our inequality, since the extremely low productivity at work depends essentially on the good functioning of technologies that demand knowledge of this third type, in which the supply of trained professionals is insufficient.
In short, the problem in Brazil is not low quality of science that is done here, but the low density of scientists and professionals trained to meet the demands of society. In addition to bringing the erroneous perception of lack of quality, the low density in fact makes it difficult (when not preventing) a country to achieve excellence in topics that require concentrated efforts of great importance. It is not for any other reason that Brazil is competitive in technologies, such as those already mentioned, in which there is a density of trained researchers, based on public policies initiated decades ago.
I expect our leaders, at all levels, will realize the direct and indirect benefits of a robust and quality scientific system. Even if it is for their survival in the event they need adequate health care. But mainly to fulfill the dream of transforming Brazil into a less unequal country.