A Space for Science.
The Development of the Scientific Community in Brazil. SIMON SCHWARTZMAN. Pennsylvania
State University Press, University Park, 1992. x, 286 pp. $32.50. Revised translation
of the Portuguese edition (1979).
(Reviewed by Daniel Serwer, SCIENCE, Vol. 256, 5 June 1992, p. 1464)
A decade ago I attended, as the science counselor of the American embassy
in Brasília, the opening in Campinas of a meeting of the Brazilian Association
for the Advancement of Science. It seemed all too First World: a local symphony
orchestra played classical music and the distinguished President offered
opening remarks. Even the protesters, who interrupted but did not disrupt,
seemed familiar. But then, right at the end, the orchestra struck up a well-
known samba and everyone leapt into the aisles and danced, chins held high,
singing "Brasil, Brasil" in a position the whole world has come to know
from television coverage of Rio's Carnival extravaganza.
Samba (along with many other aspects of Brazilian life) contrasts strongly with
the ideal so starkly inscribed on the national flag: "order and progress." There
has nevertheless grown in this Third World country with First World ambitions
a scientific community second only to India's among developing countries, with
areas of excellence that compete in the major leagues. A Space for Science
is the most comprehensive and intelligent account of Brazilian science, past
and present, I have seen. Its availability in English in this extensively revised
version is to he welcomed.
For Schwartzman, the glass is half empty, however. He opens with the myth of Sisyphus
and chronicles the repeated, and only partly successful, efforts to promote scientific
culture in Brazil. Eventually, efforts would crystallize around local health problems,
minerals, animals and plants, the weather, solar eclipses: all provided reasons
for scientific activity and left behind people and institutions to carry it on,
but none was strong enough as a social and intellectual force to support the scientific
enterprise as a whole.
Only in the 1930s did Brazil acquire the kind of university, in São Paolo, that
could sustain modem research and teaching of the sort known in the industrialized
world. The ingredients of this development are well worth noting: the University
of São Paolo was founded by the local elite, in reaction to the defeat of their
political rebellion, with extensive help from French academics. The Paulistas
might not be able to have their own country, but they would have their own education,
one inspired by European culture.
Politics and foreigners have remained ingredients of Brazilian scientific development
ever since. The French and Italians were especially important before World War
II, but it was the Americans who would establish stronger links thereafter. Beginning
with the Rockefeller Foundation's efforts in the 1930s, the United States became
a source of funding, training, professors, and inspiration.
This foreign contribution to Brazilian science is not something all Brazilians
want to hear about, and it gives some Americans pause as well. The political context
of Brazilian science is highly nationalistic, at times even xenophobic. Science
in Brazil has become associated not with European culture but with efforts to
find substitutes for imports, to exploit the country's natural resources, and
to develop the national economy.
After the military took over in 1964, scientists expected to suffer, and many
left the country. Seeing one of them approaching me at a conference years later,
I expected him to berate me for American support of the dictatorship, only to
find him thanking me for the efforts of a predecessor of mine at the embassy who
had helped him to leave the country on short notice to avoid arrest.
Scientists and soldiers in fact soon found more common ground than expected by
applying science and technology to development. They reserved the domestic market
for telecommunications equipment and computers, maintained a "parallel" (and in
part secret) nuclear program distinct from that associated with safeguarded German
sales of reactors and fuel cycle technology, and undertook a national missile
program that aimed eventually at a space-launch vehicle.
I once knew well the major figures in these national programs, and it is hard
for me to agree with Schwartzman that the glass is half empty. I take it from
him that with the return to democracy and the economic crisis of the late 1980s
science in Brazil has been less well supported than it was in the fading years
of the military dictatorship, when I lived and worked there. But the excitement
and vision of those who tried to forge Brazil's future through science and technology
were inspiring even when their efforts were economically counterproductive, damaging
the environment, and risky in terms of nuclear proliferation and sales of missiles
Iraq and Libya.
The political context has now changed. Today, a well-known opponent of proliferation
is a government minister, Brazil's economy is opening up, and the country hosting
a world environment conference that will unquestionably express concerns about
the Amazon that the military regime would once have rejected out of hand. Schwartzman
is disappointed that science for the sake of knowledge has not caught on in Brazil,
but that it has caught on for any purpose should be a source of satisfaction those
who wish that immense and populous country the best. Nothing against samba, course.
But order and progress should hi their place as well.
American Embassy, Rome, Italy