Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No. 6, November 1999

1999, Vol. 21
No. 6 (November)
.. 40th Council Highlights
.. IUPAC: 2000 and Beyond
.. 37th IUPAC Congress
.. Chemistry in Today's Brazil
.. News from IUPAC:
   Biodegradation of
   Chemical Warfare
.. Other Societies
.. New Books and Publications
.. Provisional Recommendations
.. Awards
.. Conference Announcements
.. Conferences

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Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No. 6
November 1999

Chemistry in Today's Brazil

Professor Carlos A. L. Filgueiras (Departamento de Química Inorganica, Instituto de Química, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, C.P. 68563, 21945-970 Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil; E-mail:, a National Representative for IUPAC's Commission on Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry (II.2), prepared this article. It is an English translation, edited slightly for a non-Brazilian audience, of a Portuguese version that appeared in the January/February issue of Química Nova. We thank Professor Carol H. Collins (Instituto de Química, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, C.P. 6154, 13803-970 Campinas, SP, Brazil), Executive Secretary of the Brazilian Chemistry Committee (BCC), which represents Brazil in IUPAC, for helping to facilitate publication of this contribution.

Chemistry in Colonial Brazil
Beginnings of Modern Chemistry in Brazil
Postwar Development of Chemistry in Brazil
Growth of Research and Graduate Programs
Chemical Industry in Today's Brazil
Educational and Research Assessments
Role of Brazilian Scientific Societies
Chemistry in Brazil's Latin American Neighbors
Overcoming Obstacles to Chemistry in Today's Brazil
Future of Chemistry in Brazil


This article surveys the birth and development of the chemical community in Brazil over the last 50 years. Chemistry in Brazil has had its ups and downs over the years. The institutionalization of chemistry took considerable time and still is irregular, depending in part upon the whims of the government at any given time. Starting from humble beginnings, a vigorous chemistry community developed and rapidly expanded the scope of its activities across the country. Many problems remain unsolved, however, and to these have now been added dismal government policies that threaten to negate many of the accomplishments achieved thus far. Brazilian chemistry is at the threshold of a new age that will differ greatly from the previous half-century.

Chemistry in Colonial Brazil

Teaching of chemistry on a regular basis, as well as some rudimentary research, began in the first years of the 19th century, under the auspices of the Portuguese King John VI, who lived in Rio de Janeiro from 1808 to 1821. These activities were, however, very limited in scope. The situation did not change appreciably during the remainder of the 19th century, with chemistry regarded solely as an ancillary discipline in the study of other specialties, such as engineering, medicine, or pharmacy.

Beginnings of Modern Chemistry in Brazil

Curricula granting university degrees in chemistry were created only during the first decades of the 20th century. Their aim was to teach the state of the art, in order to prepare professionals capable of supervising important analytical or synthetic processes, transformations,

and control operations in the country's nascent industry. Original contributions to the chemical sciences, experimental or theoretical, were almost nonexistent. An important exception was the systematic research undertaken at the University of São Paulo (USP) in the 1930s, led by chemists who had emigrated from Germany. Nevertheless, this situation was unique; despite the pioneering work led by those initial USP researchers and their first Brazilian collaborators, the country as a whole remained impervious to the idea of scientific research as a means to promote progress. There was hardly any awareness of this need, because of the scientific ignorance of the population, especially the elite.

Discontinuity in policies, programs, institutions, and scientific activities was another important factor that slowed the development of modern science in Brazil. The following pattern recurred often: from time to time, a brilliant scientist or a group of scientists excelled in some important work, gathering a following of disciples and often founding an institution or school of thought. Their achievements were recognized, sometimes widely, but after a certain time, support for their work decreased and could even be discontinued. It was as if Brazilian society liked the ephemeral glitter of scientific achievement and considered it as some sort of cake frosting or a social ornament, not something essential to the life and the progress of that same society.

Postwar Development of Chemistry in Brazil

It was necessary to wait until the awareness of the need to develop science grew stronger before concrete actions could be undertaken. The period immediately after World War II witnessed this ripening process, as a result of the evidence, shown in the military field, of what science and technology can achieve. The enormity of the gap between Brazil and many other allies in the war was shocking to many. The lack of any national program or agency dealing with scientific development pointed to an inexorable economic, social, and intellectual regression if nothing were done. Thus, in 1951 the agencies of the National Research Council, now the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and the Coordination for Training of University Professors (CAPES) were created, to fund and direct research, establish graduate programs at the universities, and devise national policies of scientific and educational development.

Several important research centers were also created in that period, such as the Brazilian Center for Physical Research (CBPF) and the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN), which were crucial, in their early history, in discovering and nurturing new scientific talents. Beside these institutions, various nongovernmental organizations made their appearance, of which the most important at the time was the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), founded in 1948. Together, all those new organizations began to work to change the country's scientific panorama. Progress was slow at first; the goal was very ambitious and included creation of a body of scientists; establishment of active research institutions; introduction of continuing scientific research programs at universities; training of high-level scientists in the widest possible number of specialties; and, above all, the beginning of a change in a stubborn, nonscientific national mentality that was centuries old.

In spite of all the obstacles, advancement was considerable and, after two decades, at the beginning of the 1970s, there was clear evidence of progress. Several graduate-level programs were functioning regularly, and the universities, which had undergone thorough restructuring in the late 1960s, proclaimed the need to pursue original research as well as teaching. The university community already took for granted that the creation of new knowledge was one of the pillars upon which the institution must be founded; the transmission of knowledge alone, however important, no longer sufficed.

Growth of Research and Graduate Programs

Research and graduate programs grew at an extraordinary pace in the 1970s and 1980s. There was ample political and financial support for this development, which translated into remarkable quantitative and qualitative growth of science in Brazil, in particular of chemistry.

Among the reasons for the success enjoyed by CNPq, particularly as conductor of the national science and technology policies of the 1970s and 1980s, were strong financial backing and introduction of the peer review system and scientific advisory committees, both drawn from the scientific community. The scientific advisory committee system, started in 1976, had enormous importance in decisions concerning recommendations and resource allocations based on merit, rather than on political influence.

One of the indications of the political importance given to scientific progress was the publication, in 1974, of a Basic Plan for Scientific and Technological Development (PBDCT) as a government priority. This kind of planning was considered to be so crucial that, in 1976, a second plan succeeded the first. Also in 1974, both CNPq and another agency, the Fund for Financing Studies and Research (FINEP), were reformulated, enabling them to function for many years as effective agents to promote the goals of PBDCT and other programs that followed it.

A diagnosis for all scientific areas at the time was made and published in 1974. The situation was a far cry from what exists today, even taking into account any inaccuracies present in that document. In December 1973, there were only 144 holders of doctorates in chemistry, as well as 118 students pursuing doctorates in chemistry. To give an idea of how things have changed, in 1997, Brazilian universities awarded 200 doctorates in chemistry, up from 170 in 1996 and 153 in 1995. Currently, 25 university programs grant doctorates in chemistry.

In 1996, there were 80 000 chemistry professionals, of whom 50 000 were technicians and 30 000 were university-trained in chemistry or chemical engineering. Of the university-educated professionals, more than 1 600 had a doctorate and, of these, 90% were employed at universities.

Chemical Industry in Today's Brazil

Today Brazil is ranked among the top ten countries in the world, with respect to the size of its chemical industry; this industry is of paramount importance in creating jobs, internal wealth, and profits from exports. This condition would not have occurred without the large increase in chemical education and training programs at all levels, as well as augmentation of related areas, such as metallurgy or mining, in which chemistry plays a major role. In this manner, teaching institutions responded to the challenges posed to them. However, most of the Brazilian chemical industry is concerned mainly with producing relatively less elaborate goods, such as petrochemicals, monomers, polymers, etc., in large quantities. The specialty chemicals industry, which makes lesser amounts of value-added products, is still quite modest. Development of specialty chemicals will require, in addition to capital and political will, a large number of high-level scientists in order to succeed.



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