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From a cold start, Brazilian science and technology heat up

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Lynn Savage, [email protected]

In a country where basic educational needs have gone unmet for decades, you might not expect a thriving photonics industry. In Brazil, however, light-based efforts are steadily climbing toward prominence.

As recently as the beginning of the century – this one, not the 19th or even the 20th – only half of Brazil’s children finished primary school, and 75 percent of adults were functionally illiterate. Children in private schools fared scarcely better than those in public schools, and public support for the value of education barely registered.

Brazil’s former minister of science and technology Sergio M. Rezende (front row, second from left) is shown with his colleagues in the magnetism and magnetic materials group at Universidade Federal Pernambuco (UFPE). Courtesy of S. Rezende.

Since then, federal programs designed to improve schools and to encourage learning were instituted by presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and they have resulted in increased spending per student, better student (and teacher!) attendance, and better scores in math, reading and science.

In addition to supporting public and traditional private schools, Brazil’s federal and local governments encourage social foundations and private companies to run schools that are open to any child. And not just a few: Hundreds of companies are shouldering at least part of the burden directly.

For Flavio Cruz, a professor of physics at the University of Campinas, just north of São Paulo, there was a self-determined drive to science. “The motivation for choosing physics came from basic scientific questions such as ‘How [does] the world work?’ ” he recalled. After considering astrophysics, he turned to a possibly more professionally advantageous path and eventually earned a PhD working with far-infrared (or terahertz) lasers and nonlinear spectroscopy.

Cruz knows, however, that many youngsters may not follow the same path.

“Brazil still has big educational problems, especially at the basic level,” he said. “The fraction of students that get into college is still small, and of course a smaller fraction chooses a scientific career.” He added that the country needs better and more widespread science education at the elementary level as well as a larger effort to get high school students interested in science and technology careers.

The Brazilian Plan for the Development of Education aims to spread educational resources throughout the country and make learning accessible (and desirable) to all. Part of this program, which is funneling an extra $10 billion into education each year, has been the establishment of the Federal Institute for Education, Science and Technology (IFET). One of the goals of IFET is the establishment of a network of more than 350 science and technology institutes primed to reach high school students and to train future teachers.

“Brazil is a newcomer in science and technology because the country woke up to this area only in the past 40 years,” said Dr. Sergio Rezende, former head of Brazil’s Ministry of Science & Technology. “Until the 1960s, our scientific community was very small: There were no full-time faculty jobs at universities [and no] graduate programs.”

But that was then. Last year, Rezende said, nearly 14,000 PhDs were earned, and the country has roughly 150,000 active researchers plying their fields.

And where general science is gaining in stature, optics-based science and technology is getting its share. There are about 50 academic research groups focused on photonic endeavors, along with three national optics institutes, located in São Carlos, Rio de Janeiro and Recife.

In spite of Brazil’s issues with primary education, the country has a strong optics and photonics community, Cruz said. “Photonics, as a key technology used in many areas, is also experiencing growth. New research groups in optics and photonics are being created in different regions.”

University spin outs thus far include Opto Eletrônica SA, a medical instrument maker based in São Carlos, and AsGa SA, an optical communications company in Campinas.

The campus of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil. Courtesy of Flavio Cruz.

Photonics technologies, according to Rezende, are becoming more widespread throughout Brazil in industry, agriculture and various services. For example, he said, satellite imaging is helping to curb deforestation in the Amazon region. Opto Eletrônica and AsGa have contributed to components on Brazil-built satellites for such missions.

The vast majority of Brazilian graduates stay in the country, Rezende said, with only about 5 percent having left during the 1990s, when the economy in general, and research in particular, were still moribund.

At a major conference on science, technology and innovation in May 2010, several goals were set for 2022, the 200th anniversary of the nation’s independence. Among these goals are increasing R&D investment to 2 percent of the gross domestic product, growing the number of patents issued annually from 400 to 4000, and raising the ratio of engineers from 5 percent of all graduates to 15 percent. The country also wants to increase the number of science researchers to 450,000, or about two per 1000 people, about average for developed countries.

With Brazil’s economy at its strongest point in decades, and with its population adapting to a higher standard of living and all of the technology that comes with increased availability of cash, Brazil’s science and technology future looks very promising.

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2011
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
AsGaBrazilBrazil’s Ministry of Science & TechnologyBrazilian photonicsBrazilian Plan for the Development of EducationBusinessCommunicationseducationFederal Institute for Education Science and TechnologyFernando Henrique CardosoFlavio Cruzlight speedLuiz Inácio Lula da Silvaoptical science and educationopticsoptics institutesOpto Eletrônicaphotonicsprivate schoolspublic schoolsR&D investmentSergio RezendeSouth AmericaUniversity of Campinaslasers

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