Brazil at a crossroads: re-asserting the importance of science and technology for development – Ezequiel Zylberberg and Elisabeth Reynolds

Ezequiel Zylberberg, Research Affiliate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Industrial Performance Center

Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center

From Valor

The Brazilian government has pursued a state-led development approach for nearly a century. In the last twenty years, it has enacted various policies and programs explicitly designed to strengthen its national system of innovation. It has sought to build upon early successes in agriculture, commercial aviation, and deep sea oil & gas exploration to create new engines of growth for the 21st century.

Brazil has increased spending on science and technology, encouraged greater collaboration between industry and universities, and fostered the creation of new institutions whose primary aim is to facilitate greater private spending on research and development (R&D). Yet, recent headwinds threaten to derail what, despite several well-known shortcomings, has been a remarkable story of progress.

Beginning with the economic recession and political fallout associated with the Lava Jato corruption scandal that began in 2014, and continuing with the proposed dramatic cuts to science and technology spending and the ouster of respected leaders in the scientific community, Brazil’s science, technology, and innovation agenda has faced serious challenges and now faces an uncertain future.

During these difficult times, it is important for the business and scientific communities to re-assert the value of science, technology, and innovation, not as an end in itself, but as a platform for sustained economic growth and social development. Brazil cannot afford to fall behind as the pace of technological change quickens and the globalization of production and innovation grows in scale and scope.

It was in the context of these ongoing challenges that MIT’s Industrial Performance Center (IPC) began a five-year research collaboration with the Brazilian National Service for Industrial Training (SENAI) in 2014. The project recently culminated in the publication of a volume entitled Innovation in Brazil: Advancing Development in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2019, Portuguese edition by Elsevier forthcoming).

This book represents a true transnational collaboration. It includes contributions from MIT researchers as well as leading Brazilian academics and practitioners, and proposes a forward-looking innovation agenda for the country. This research will be the focus of an upcoming presentation at the MIT Sloan Future of Work Conference to be held on August 29th in São Paulo.

We find that in order to effectively accelerate innovation and position itself for growth in the 21st century, Brazil should address five key areas. First, the country should strengthen its engagement with the rest of the world through global value chains and knowledge networks. This is made more urgent by the arrival of a set of fast moving, complex, and globally integrated digital technologies.

Second, the country should foster greater alignment between innovation and industrial policy, leveraging initiatives that aim to increase innovation capacity to build capabilities in the industrial base. This challenge is heightened by rapid changes in the country’s policy priorities under changing administrations, as well as by the limited institutional mechanisms to foster coordination in the policy arena.

A mission-oriented approach to solving large societal problems has been effective in the past – the Proálcool program is one of several well-known examples – and should be pursued with the same long-term vision moving forward. The pursuit of such programs requires policy stability, a long-term vision, and insulation from politics.

Third, Brazil is home to several novel and promising institutional innovations that encourage greater private R&D spending such as the EMBRAPII model, SENAI’s national network of innovation institutes, and FAPESP’s Engineering Research Centers. Models that effectively encourage private sector R&D spending and collaboration with research institutions should receive continued public support so that they can balance market demands with long-term investments to build capabilities the country needs.

Fourth, more must be done to minimize bureaucracy, create the right incentives, and foster an environment supportive of risk-taking in order to build greater translational capacity at universities. Patenting new technology cannot be seen as an end in itself, but as a valuable means of bringing new technologies to market, where they can have an impact on society.

Read the full post at Valor. 

Ezequiel Zylberberg is a Research Affiliate at the MIT Industrial Performance Center. Dr. Zylberberg presented the research which focused on the progress to date and challenges ahead for Brazil’s innovation agenda at the MIT Sloan Future of Work Conference held on August 29th in São Paulo. 

Elisabeth Reynolds is the Executive Director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center and a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Ben Ross Schneider is the Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Brazil Program.

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