Doctor and scientist Marco Antonio Zago, current president of FAPESP (São Paulo State Research Support Foundation), has more than a decade of experience developing scientific policy for the country.
As the head of the institution, which is currently one of the country’s top science financiers, Zago criticizes cuts in science and education resources and defends government officials viewing scientific knowledge as a source of wealth. For him, science and technology can give the country a future in a time of uncertainty.
In a video conference interview with Folha, Zago spoke about his vision for Brazilian science and the recent achievement of FAPESP, an institution that will turn 60 in 2021.
What are the pillars of FAPESP’s activity in recent years? FAPESP eventually became the most important funding agency for science in the country. The stability of FAPESP enables us to make long-term plans. We can plan for the future and develop programs that take time to develop. For almost 20 years, FAPESP has maintained a group of research centers with stable funding that focus on important topics such as cell therapy or the use of genomics in medicine.
In addition, the foundation uses around 30% of its budget for the training of human resources, with academic initiation, master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral grants. In recent years, FAPESP has begun to provide another, equally important, innovation-focused form of finance for products for immediate employment.
She is still doing basic research. It’s this science that no one else does if we don’t support it; is our mission. If the researcher has a project to study the origin of the universe, and the scientists analyzing the project think the project is good and worthwhile, we will fund it.
How was FAPESP performing during the coronavirus pandemic? At the start of the pandemic, our first action was to call on researchers who already had projects with FAPESP to research Covid-19, and some projects were cleared in 15 days. Then we support innovative companies and startups. We fund Coronavac’s clinical trials and also fund other research related to Covid vaccines.
It is important to note that FAPESP has already funded quite a bit of research on viruses like dengue, zika, etc. When Covid, a virus, hit the response was faster. So here in Brazil we had a rapid sequencing of the virus. The laboratory, the researchers and the network of collaborations between scientists were already in place, and the infrastructure previously created with the support of the Foundation made this answer possible.
In 2020, a bill by the Doria Government (PSDB) to the Legislative Assembly provided for the withdrawal of funds from state universities and FAPESP (PL 529/2020). The original project envisaged that the financial surplus from autarkies and foundations would be transferred to the state treasury at the end of each year, which could jeopardize longer research projects. After that, the project was approved, but FAPESP’s resources were spared. As Lord. did you see this government move? It originated from a government concern with declining revenues and a lack of resources that could accompany the pandemic. This is not news; since I’ve followed the life of the foundation, there have been attempts to maneuver resources for other purposes, but these never materialized. The state government has always respected this border in one way or another, as FAPESP is considered a legacy of the people of São Paulo. These movements are part of the story. The governor supports FAPESP and guarantees that we will not interfere with the resources.
We have a brain drain today with capable young people leaving the country. What can be done to reverse this situation? The loss of these young people is causing enormous damage to the country. They don’t do it out of selfishness, but the prospects are bad. The economy is still very blurry; There’s no hard evidence we’re getting it back. Life at universities is also becoming very difficult, especially outside the state of São Paulo. There is discouragement and a lack of resources, and there is no prospect of improvement. Young people might think that staying here would sink their lives.
This loss occurs over time. We are losing quality, losing skilled workers, and soon there will be no more thinking people in universities and technology companies.
How do we change? We need to change the outlook for the country’s economy. The greatest resource losses within the federal government were in science, technology and education. There is no future for the country without science and technology. Governments must take new supportive measures to secure the future. There is no point in constantly worrying about economic maneuvers, first we have to create money, and what money creates is science and technology, competition in this area.
Marco Antonio Zago, 74, President of FAPESP
He holds a medical degree from Ribeirão Preto Medical School, University of São Paulo (FMRP-USP) and a postdoctoral degree from Oxford University, UK. He was Dean of the USP, President of CNPq and Secretary of State for Health of São Paulo