R&D in Brazil

This week, the Knowledge Economy team of the Development Gateway is focusing on Brazil as a potential tech and innovation powerhouse.

Brazil has over the past years been receiving increasing public and private investments aimed at boosting and expanding innovative activities in the country.

Brazil is the largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Latin America, and Brazilian entrepreneurs point to FDI as a major source of new technology transfer and to the licensing of foreign technology as a major form of acquiring new technology.

When it comes to the internal capacity to absorb and create new technologies, -while Brazil has been broadening access to education at all levels-, the Brazil Competitiveness meeting hosted by the World Economic Forum in June this year pointed out that only a relatively small number of high-tech professionals are graduating. The Forum recommended that Brazil increase the number of graduating professionals and improve education, primarily by increasing specialization in fields related to the more competitive industries of the country. The Forum also pointed out other weaknesses of Brazil's innovation system, among them insufficient linkages between universities and other actors.

This again points to the importance of building local absorptive capacity rather than relying too heavily on foreign direct investment. (See also a Foreign Policy article, which Reuben pointed out.)

I recently read an article describing the Xylella fastidiosa Genome Project. The Brazilian scientists in the project made use of Europe's distributed team organization for sequencing the genome and adapted it to their own conditions - thereby greatly improving on the European model in the author's opinion. Spreading the research across numerous labs (34 sequencing labs, 1 bioinformatics lab and collaboration with 2 European labs) also helped to train more scientist in biotechnology, and to create a better base/more absorptive capacity for future research projects and the biotech industry. The choice of the organism to sequence was also significant - a citrus pathogen, which is of great interest to academics and agribusiness.

At the time, the project created quite a stir: Brazil was the first developing country to join genome sequencing as a serious player; theirs was the first plant genome to be sequenced. From EMBnet news (April 2000):

In two years, Brazil (or at least São Paulo state) has gone from essentially nothing to being one of the larger producers of sequence data in the world. It has done so not by investing massively in a large sequencing facility, but by bringing together a large number of individual labs, many of which are already using these new data and know-how in their own research. In this way, the genome projects have already had a major impact on Brazilian science.

The world has not really taken notice yet, but I would bet that within another year or two ONSA and the HCGP will have achieved the same recognition as TIGR and CGAP. Bioinformaticians and genome scientists take note!

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