PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signs a national plan for educational development on December 12, 2007, in the capital, Brasília. Seated (left to right) are, Miguel Nicolelis, Education Minister Fernando Haddad and Planning Minister Paulo Bernardo Silva. Image: Ricardo Stuckert/PR, Brazilian Presidential Press Office
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Editors' note: An article in the February 2008 issue of Scientific American, "Building a Future on Science" by Christine Soares, describes a project led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis to use science as an agent of social and economic transformation in his native Brazil. In this essay, Nicolelis explains the origins of his idea and how it could be extended to other nations.
In the 21st century, innovative knowledge and technology creation, arguably the most unique by-products of the human brain, are likely to become the most valuable commodities fueling the global economy. As countries and multinational companies diversify their strategies in response to a new wave of globalization, a competitive edge will be held by those who are capable of more efficiently utilizing geographically distributed technological assets and skilled labor forces. It seems plausible, therefore, to envision that widely diverse communities worldwide will start linking their efforts to form virtual partnerships capable of competing more efficiently for the economic, social and political benefits generated by the growth of the knowledge-based industry. A project underway to build one such knowledge-based enclave of activity in northeastern Brazil is an example of this paradigm, and potentially the first of many such knowledge islands that will link to form a true knowledge archipelago worldwide.
Sitting on a comfortable chair at the leftmost corner of a stage set in the spacious west hall of the Presidential Palace, I could hardly believe that the ceremony unfolding in front of me was actually taking place. Flanked by the Brazilian minister of education, Dr. Fernando Haddad, and facing a crowd which had stoically endured a two-hour delay, I found myself next to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva while he calmly went about the business of signing a series of important presidential decrees.
It was an unusually breezy and politically charged early spring afternoon in Brasília. Despite his already busy day, the president seemed genuinely happy to be there—particularly since each of his signatures was saluted by a salvo of applause and exuberant celebration by different constituents, invited from all over the country to witness the event.
The ceremony had been delayed because President Lula had to participate in a series of last-minute meetings with congressional leaders involved in a highly disputed vote to extend a tax on financial transactions that would raise an estimated 40 billion reals a year ($23 billion) to fund a variety of federal social programs.
It turns out that there was plenty of justification for the crowd's patient wait and for cheering each presidential signature. The decrees signed on December 12th created a series of complementary programs to support the backbone of a new Brazilian Plan for Education Development. Announced last April, this strategic educational project was spearheaded by Minister Haddad and his team as the ministry's flagship initiative to revamp Brazilian public education in the next few years.
Lost in my thoughts—most of which revolved around my amazement at how a five year roller coaster ride that started in front of a TV set in my home office in Chapel Hill, N.C., could have landed me in the Presidential Palace that afternoon—I almost missed the call to join President Lula, Minister Haddad and the provost of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Professor Ivonildo do Rego, at the front of the stage. The time had come for signing the decree that allocated 42 million reals ($25 million) toward construction of the "Campus of the Brain" of the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN; www.natalneuro.org.br). The campus will be built in the bucolic little town of Macaíba, 25 kilometers from Natal, the capital of one of the smallest, neediest and most beautiful states of Brazil, Rio Grande do Norte.