A science hub for the Southern Hemisphere

São Paulo, science
iStock/Oleksii Liskonih

Sound public policies and a tradition of good higher education and research institutes make the State of São Paulo, in Brazil, an international centre for research.

The state of São Paulo in Brazil is one of the main hubs for Science and Technology in the Global South. With a population of 42 million people, in 2018, the state accounted for 32% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Brazil. The state has 21% of the population and 25% of the country’s academic scientists.1 However, in the five years from 2014 to 2018, 44% of the scientific papers published in international journals by researchers in Brazil had authors from São Paulo state.2

The state accounts for 35% of the doctorates awarded in Brazil each year. More than half of the patents granted annually by the Brazilian Patent Office (INPI) are for São Paulo state-based organisations. The State has been long known as one of the hottest Science and Technology hubs in the southern hemisphere. Research collaboration with the rest of the world is strong and has been growing, thanks to an effective policy of collaborative agreements implemented by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) with the main research funders and performers in the world. In the last two years, the state hosted the plenary meetings of the Global Research Council (GRC) and of the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD).

A key factor for this performance is that for many decades the state of São Paulo has had a solid set of actions, funded by taxpayers to support higher education and research. The state decidedly supports three universities that consistently rank among the top research universities in Brazil – the University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and Julio de Mesquita Filho State University (UNESP) – granting them a degree of autonomy not found in other Brazilian universities. The state funds 19 research institutes in areas such as health, agriculture, veterinary science, technology, environment, and others. The state supports an extensive and growing network of technology-oriented higher education institutions ‘Fatecs’. Finally, the state of São Paulo allocates 1% of its tax revenues to the Foundation for Research Support in the State of São Paulo (FAPESP), one of the major research funding agencies in the country.

São Paulo – a home for major research organisations

Additionally, the state of São Paulo is home to major research organisations supported by the federal government. There are three excellent federal universities (Federal University of São Paulo, Federal University of São Carlos, and the Federal University of ABC), and the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA). Three of the most important national research institutes are in São Paulo: the National Centre for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM), the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and the Aeronautics Centre of Technology (CTA). The state also has a sizable network of private not-for-profit research institutes, many associated to hospitals, others working in electronics, IT, and agriculture. Some private universities have research strategies that contribute to the state’s effort.

companies also have their own intensive R&D activities in São Paulo; in 2017 the business sector funded 54% of the total R&D expenditure in the state. The size of the business sector effort is a relevant element to maintain in the state an environment conducive to university-industry research collaboration.

FAPESP, fully funded by the public taxpayer, plays a large role in developing the state’s policy towards S&T development. By a constitutional mandate, 1% of State fiscal revenues is transferred every month to its coffers. Therefore, the Foundation has a sizable degree of autonomy and stability, including having its own endowment. FAPESP’s mission is to foster research in all fields of knowledge, and this is done by awarding scholarships, fellowships and grants to investigators associated to higher education and research institutions in the State of São Paulo.

Achieving significant results

FAPESP supports the most advanced research in Brazil through the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs), which have 11-year contracts, Thematic Projects, which may last up to five years, the Young Investigators Program (YIA) and São Paulo Excellence Chairs (SPEC), which bring to São Paulo highly qualified scientists who work abroad.

FAPESP has also been able to achieve significant results in supporting innovation. In partnership with Peugeot-Citroen, Shell, Natura, GlaxoSmithKline; Koppert, Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and São Martinho, FAPESP has established Engineering Research Centres (ERC), with the primary mission to execute complex research projects at knowledge frontiers, oriented to problems and in pursuit of well-defined challenges specified by the partner company. The ERC’s internationally competitive core research team must develop effective means to transfer technology, promote education, and disseminate knowledge.

The success of this program shows that the companies are committed to long-term initiatives and that FAPESP’s strategy, in which every dollar of the Foundation is matched by a dollar from companies and through sizeable investments made by universities, has been effective.

Developing the Research & Development system

Innovation in São Paulo is also fostered through a FAPESP program for funding innovative research in small businesses (less than 250 employees). Any small company in the state, even a start-up with a single employee, can submit a proposal to FAPESP to request funding for its research activity that would allow it to improve its processes and competitiveness. In 2018, one new grant of this type was approved every workday.

Higher education organisations in the State of São Paulo work hard to connect their educational mission to opportunities associated with the business sector. Each of the major research universities have innovation agencies, which are not just geared for technology transfer activities. They are charged with expanding and implementing opportunities to interact with industry, government, and society in order to connect research conducted at the university to demands for applications. The University of Campinas alone displays a collection of more than 500 student-and-faculty-initiated companies in the last 40 years, including one ‘unicorn’. The University of São Paulo graduated 10 of the 16 leaders of ‘unicorn’ companies in Brazil.

Multiplying opportunities

The strategy of multiplying opportunities for researchers in São Paulo to collaborate with colleagues in other countries and other regions of Brazil has yielded significant dividends for the state.

To further develop the R&D system in the state, FAPESP has been implementing a strong initiative to increase internationally collaborative research in São Paulo. It has established partnerships with funding agencies, higher education institutions, private companies and research organizations in other countries known by the quality of their research, and has been encouraging scientists funded by its grants to further develop their international collaboration.

In the last 13 years, FAPESP has established cooperation agreements to co-fund collaborative research projects with 34 countries, involving the world’s leading research funding agencies and 138 universities. They include the United States National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Energy (DoE), the seven United Kingdom Research Councils (UKRI), the German Research Foundation (DFG), the French National Research Agency (ANR), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), Argentina’s National Scientific & Technical Research Council (CONICET), Chile’s CONICYT, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW), the Portuguese FCT, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), the European Union Framework Program for Research & Innovation (Horizon 2020), as well as research funders in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Spain and other countries.

The internationalization strategy also entails the organization of symposia and exhibitions in several countries. In the US, they were held in Washington (DC), Cambridge (MA), Charlotte, Chapel Hill (NC), Berkeley, Davis (CA), Ann Arbor (MI), Columbus (OH), Lincoln (NE), Lubbock (TX), New York (NY), Morgantown (WV). In other countries, they were held in Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca (Spain), Toronto (Canada), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Montevideo (Uruguay), Tokyo (Japan), London (UK), Beijing (China), Munich (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium).

FAPESP’s international research collaboration strategy presupposes that the partners design and write projects jointly, guaranteeing a major share of the collaboration for the interests of São Paulo’s research community. The resulting collaboration, supported by FAPESP and one or more foreign agencies, mobilises more funding than each agency alone would invest, permitting more complex projects with more significant scientific, economic and social impacts. When FAPESP invests BRL 55 million in cross-border collaborative projects, as it did in 2018, its partners invest at least the same amount in matching funds for their researchers with the same objective.

The collaborative research projects supported by FAPESP address such topics as the Amazon, the South Atlantic, biodiversity, detection of neutrinos, Zika, dengue, climate change, depression in the elderly, energy storage, oil and gas reservoirs, advanced electric batteries, bioenergy, the Brazilian public health system, water security, inequality and education, public security, and hundreds of others.

International collaboration

FAPESP supports networking for collaboration by awarding scholarships for research internships abroad (Portuguese acronym BEPE), thanks to which roughly 1,000 young scientists per year work on foreign research projects connected to the projects they are developing in São Paulo. When they return to these projects, their dissertations and theses become more complete and competitive, and their professional backgrounds are more cosmopolitan.

Another important part of FAPESP’s international collaboration strategy involves bringing bright young scientists from all over the world to work on research projects in São Paulo. In 2018, 19% of the postdoctoral researchers engaged with funding from FAPESP had graduated in other countries. In the hard sciences, the proportion was 32%, and in engineering, it was 27%. In the Young Researchers program, which brings young scientists with international experience in postdoctoral research to São Paulo to start a professional career in universities and research institutions in the state. 19% of those selected for this program had graduated in other countries. This ‘brain gain’ (as opposed to a brain drain) shows that many young people in other countries are interested in participating in the world-class research done in São Paulo.

The effectiveness of research carried out in São Paulo is the combined result of several factors that include the quality of the state’s universities and institutes, the extraordinary productivity of its researchers, a growing R&D endeavour by private, São Paulo-based, companies, São Paulo’s outstanding infrastructure, and the existence of FAPESP, a well-designed and well-funded state research-funding agency.

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, PhD

São Paulo Research Foundation Scientific Director


+55 11 3838 4000



Please note, this article will appear in issue 32 of SciTech Europa Quarterly, which is available to read now.

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