Science as an agent of social transformation
After spending most of my life as a Paulista (a native of São Paulo State), I had been "reborn" five years earlier as a Potiguar, as citizens of Rio Grande do Norte are proudly known, in honor of one of the few Brazilian Indian tribes that never surrendered to the Portuguese colonists. I vividly recall the date and the precise moment of this rebirth, in which not one but two Potiguars were delivered at the same time. This twin delivery occurred late on the night of October 27, 2002. Standing in front of a 60-inch TV set that was specially purchased to follow Brazilian soccer matches, Sidarta Ribeiro, my longtime collaborator (and at that time a postdoctoral fellow in my laboratory at Duke University) and I spent most of the night following the news of the Brazilian presidential elections.
Around midnight in North Carolina, and just a couple of hours after all 86,129,335million votes had been digitally cast and counted, Brazilians all over the world learned that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the metalworker who gained national and international renown for his stand against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, had been elected president of Brazil with more than 61 percent of the ballots. Minutes later, Mr. Lula da Silva celebrated both his birthday and his unprecedented election by addressing a huge crowd that had gathered on the Avenida Paulista, in the financial heart of São Paulo, to greet their new president.
During that victory speech, President Lula said that it was time to start building a new and fairer country where all Brazilians would have the opportunity to fulfill their individual potential and become true participants in the decisions and challenges required to allow Brazil to awaken from its long slumber and reach out, at long last, toward a future of prosperity, justice and happiness. As most Brazilians would say, such a bright future had been heralded by many, for a long time, but it had never quite materialized.
Although the idea had been floating in our minds for some time, the decision to build the "Natal project," as it was originally named, came to life that unforgettable night when President Lula's call to arms hit us head-on in Chapel Hill.
There has been no looking back since then.
But how could a bunch of scientists living abroad do anything at all that would help in any meaningful way a country as huge and diverse as Brazil to move ahead? The answer to this question, which became the motto of our entire effort, surprised many in Brazil: We would use science as an agent of social transformation.
A few months after that night, we landed in Brasília to meet with President Lula and announce our intent to create a private project whose main goal would be to use science to transform the Brazilian northeast. Covering 71 million hectares of land (roughly twice the area of California), most of which is occupied by a semiarid ecosystem unique to Brazil known as caatinga, the northeast is home to 51 million people and some of the worst human development indexes found in the country.
As Brazilian scientists, we felt that high-quality science could do something to start reversing this sad reality. Instead of working solely within the limits of the traditional public university system, our plan called for the creation of a network of stand-alone private research institutes, loosely inspired by the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, that would spread across different northeast states and promote world class basic and applied scientific inquiry in 12 key strategic areas of research considered vital for Brazil's future development. Different from the Max Planck network, however, the key mission of each of these new institutes would not be limited to the production of academic research, but would also include the establishment of new paradigms through which scientific enterprise could become the main driving force behind a series of educational, social and economic initiatives aimed at empowering impoverished communities throughout the region.