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Brazil Science and Technology

IN THE 1970s, BRAZIL undertook a major effort to establish a strong scientific and technological base that would make the country self-sufficient economically, powerful militarily, and better able to withstand international pressures and constraints. Heavy investments were made in the country's infrastructure for the production of steel, machine tools, energy, communications, and transportation. A few high-technology projects with expected civilian spinoffs were started in atomic energy, aeronautics, and space research. Universities were reformed along the so-called United States model of graduate education and departmental organization, although they also retained strong European characteristics of separate faculties. Financing agencies for science and technology were set up and endowed generously. Several hundred graduate programs were organized, and several thousand fellowships were awarded each year for study at universities in the United States and Europe. Brazil's effort to strengthen its scientific base attracted international attention and was considered an example of how a country might move from underdevelopment, poverty, and international dependency to economic growth, better living standards, and self-reliance.

During the 1980s, however, Brazil's fast-growing economy lost momentum and entered a period of stagnation. The investments in science and technology of the previous years were insufficient to ward off the forthcoming debt crisis and uncontrolled inflation. The crisis resulted from a combination of factors, including the outmoded pattern of domestic economic growth through import-substitution industrialization (see Glossary), the increase in international interest rates and oil prices, and the uncontrolled increase in public expenditures resulting from decentralization of government and extensive patronage. Key questions for the 1990s are what went wrong, and how the capabilities created in the 1970s can best be used to regain economic growth and improve social conditions in a profoundly transformed international context.

Modern science and technology are products of Western culture and tradition and are not transposed easily to other societies and cultures. Nevertheless, the examples of Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and Taiwan show that this transposition is possible. A comparison between Brazil and the Asian countries points to important differences in the two experiences and possible explanations for the different outcomes of their science and technology policies.

Science and technology in Western Europe, and more recently in the United States, developed along two parallel and mutually reinforcing lines: as part of a broader scientific culture, linked to education, the development of modern professions, and a growing and prestigious scientific community; and as part of the increasingly effective industrial and military establishments. The term science is usually applied to the first, while technology is used for the latter, with the assumption that they are two sides of the same coin.

The Asian countries, however, followed a strikingly different path. They introduced modern technology but little of modern science in their universities and other similar institutions; and most of their investments in technology were made in industrial firms, rather than in large, isolated governmental agencies, including the military sector. Brazil, by contrast, developed most of its scientific capabilities in universities, while investments in technology went to a few large-scale government projects under the military and to a handful of state-owned corporations.

The assumption in Brazil was that science and technology eventually would spill over from higher education and sophisticated technological projects into society as a whole. In practice, the introduction of scientific research and graduate education in universities happened at a time of rapid expansion of higher education enrollment, leading to declining quality in scholastic standards. The consequence was that, while a handful of universities and departments reached levels of quality similar to those in the developed countries, most higher education institutions, private and public, lagged behind. In technology the large military-based projects in atomic energy, space research, and aeronautics helped in the development of a few, highly qualified networks of local suppliers and partners, but they did not enhance the quality and competence of the industrial system as a whole.

In the early 1980s, the policy of technological nationalism and self-sufficiency had narrowed to the computer sector, where protective legislation tried to shield the Brazilian mini- and microcomputer industries from foreign competition. Here again, the policy allowed for the growth of local industry and a few well-qualified firms, but the effect on the productive capabilities of the economy as a whole was negative; and the inability to follow the international market in price and quality forced the policy to be discontinued.

There are other features found in the Asian countries that did not exist in Brazil and that help to explain the different outcomes of their development drives. These features include an emphasis on basic and secondary education, leading to a competent and well-educated manpower base; lower levels of social inequality, thereby strengthening the internal market for local products; a sustained effort toward international competitiveness that requires high levels of industrial efficiency and quality control; and competent and powerful public bureaucracies working in close association with a few large and well-endowed private firms.

Data as of April 1997



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