Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brazil is offering grants to science students for study abroad

In the latest move in a campaign to boost its economy's scientific base, Brazil is offering 75,000 grants by the end of 2014 to science students keen to study abroad. The goal of the Science Without Frontiers programme is to increase the number of Brazilian pre- and post-doctoral students in leading foreign institutions. In return, the government says it will work to create similar opportunities for foreign students in Brazilian institutions.

Applications for the first tranche of grants closed on 20 October.Launching the programme President Dilma Rousseff said the objective was not to produce 75,000 Einsteins but instead build a knowledge base in the country; that these students return and with their capacity and training and transform the know-how and innovation of the country.Brazil's science and technology minister Aloizio Mercadante said the programme would focus on tackling the country's deficit in engineers and would count on a budget of US$1.8 billion. It would also help advance the government's ambitions to create a world-class
university in Brazil, according to the minister.

This year Rousseff has already agreed with US President Barack Obama and the European Union to commit to improved educational links between Brazil and two of the world's biggest economic areas.To get a grant, applicants will have to prove that their field of research or study falls within the 18 priority areas earmarked by the government for support. These range across the sciences but have a heavy emphasis on fields with obvious immediate industrial applications such as engineering, energy research, aerospace, biomedicine and information technology.

The programme will give priority to students wishing to study in the best-placed universities in international league tables. Although the government has worked to expand the third level sector over the last decade, only one Brazilian university - University of São Paulo - ranks among the world's top 200 universities, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Responsibility for the programme will be spread across the education and science ministries in the capital Brasília.The education ministry's programme Coordination for the Improvement of Highly Trained Personnel Capes, after its Portuguese initials will hand out 40,000 grants while the science ministry's National Council for Scientific and Technological Development will award 35,000 more.In 2010, Capes offered 5,000 grants to study abroad. The government wants to boost that number to 10,200 by next year with further increases in 2013 and 2014.Science Without Frontiers will be spread out across six modules ranging from one-year programmes for graduate students right up to senior researchers or specialists in the private sector looking to do research abroad.

The government will also provide grants to try and convince Brazilians located abroad to return home to conduct research. Non-Brazilians will also be able to apply for a grant.Capes will offer free English classes to students who receive a grant. Early criticism of Science Without Frontiers centred on the claims that it would benefit children from richer families who received a private education as a lack of English would put off science students who graduated from Brazil's public secondary schools, where instruction in English is weak.As well as 75,000 publicly funded grants Brazil's Secretariat of Strategic Affairs will be tasked with securing financing from the private sector for a further 25,000 grants. According to the government, British Gas and Portugal Telecom as well as Brazil's auto industry have already expressed interest in participating.

Education experts welcome the initiative but warned that it does not tackle the root cause of Brazil's shortage of science graduates and poor performance in international rankings of its universities.In principle I think any government initiative to sponsor international exchange at the third level is important, especially as the number of grants to study abroad offered by the government had fallen over a significant period of time," said Simon Schwartzman of
the Institute for Studies on Labour and Society in Rio de Janeiro.But the programme does not deal with the deeper problems in Brazil's universities. They are very bureaucratic, very rigid, controlled by internal corporations that lack accountability.Science Without Frontiers will have an impact but it will not have an existential impact and the current government does not acknowledge these problems because it is supported by rectors and professors,Schwartzman said.

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