Go South Young ChemE: Brazil Unbound, Riding the Bio-Energy Boom, Needs You

This post is presented by SBE, the Society for Biological Engineering--a global organization of leading engineers and scientists dedicated to advancing the integration of biology with engineering.

Love to travel? Have a sense of adventure? Gene-splicing by day and samba-ing by night? Well, Brazil's energy sector is booming, and where virtually all new cars run on sugar cane, investors have recently moved billions of dollars into traditional and advanced, sustainable biofuels, changing the country profoundly.

To support the boom, Brazil wants to turn itself into a bio-energy research powerhouse. But there's a problem: even though it already produces half a million science graduates and 10,000 PhDs a year, the country has a shortage of established scientists, which is a legacy of its slowly improving schools. But even if there were already enough scientists, it would still be hard keeping up with investment momentum:

  • Shell and Brazilian sugar and ethanol giant Cosan are forming a joint biofuel venture, more than doubling Cosan's existing two-billion-liter bioethanol production.
  • ADM will construct a second biodiesel plant in Brazil. It will increase ADM's biodiesel capacity in Brazil by more than 50 percent.
  • BP has offered $466 million for a 50 percent stake in the Cerradinho sugar and ethanol operations.
  • The biofuels subsidiary of Brazil's Petrobras wants to produce 420,000 tons a year of palm oil, doubling the country's current output with two projects in the northern state of Par?.
  • The Brazilian mining company Vale launched a project in 2009 to produce 160,000 tons a year of biodiesel to reduce transportation costs. The company is now planting 60,000 hectares of oil palm.
  • In November, TAM Airlines conducted the first Jatropha-based biofuel flight in Latin America. The biofuel was a 50% blend of locally-sourced Brazilian Jatropha-based bio-kerosene and conventional jet fuel.

S?o Paulo, Brazil's richest state, wants to recruit lab stars and impresarios. And they think they've got the tools.

Very deep pockets. The country's best universities. A constitution guaranteeing FAPESP, the state research foundation, $450M of state tax revenues, and the federal government's willingness to toss in walking-around money.

S?o Paulo has joined the global talent bidding war. They plan to throw money and lab facilities at foreign researchers. A Brazilian official told the Economist:

"We have money, and plenty of ideas," says Glaucia Mendes Souza, an expert on sugar-cane genomics at the University of S?o Paulo who co-ordinates FAPESP's bioenergy research. "We need more research groups, and more people to lead them."

The Reality TV Angle

Competition for the bio-talented is getting so intense, CAA, Hollywood's largest talent agency, is spinning off a division to rep biofuel researchers, Mensa members, and basically anyone with a Phi Beta Kappa key. The only scientists they've turned away are cold-fusion advocates.The agency has even pitched an ESPN-like draft pick show to the The Discovery Science channel. Agressive agents have been seen auditing classes at MIT. "Sorry kid, you're not research's next James Cameron. Get a few patents under your belt. By the way, why isn't your video press release in 3D?"

It's time for Let's Make a Deal. But even with research funding tightening in Europe and North America, the academic elite are still out of S?o Paulo's reach. Brazil may pay younger researchers well, but the universities weren't set up to lure and pamper superstars. Publicly funded, they don't have the flexibility to offer globally competitive salaries. And no research-only contracts: academics must teach undergraduates. Deal breaker. They might as well offer favela-adjacent faculty housing.

The final challenge and season finale: a mandate that all permanent positions are filled by open competition. Department heads can't just find the best scientist for the job, toss out an offer, and cut the ribbon. Sadly, it gets even harder. All competitions require a public examination--in Portuguese. Whoops. I guess I'll have to use one of my lifelines. Who thought this system up? A Survivor producer?

Corporate Sponsorships?

It might be easier to just change the Brazilian university system over to English. Or the schools could be privatized by professional soccer clubs comfortable with larger salaries. Then they'd be free to hire English soccer star David Beckham as university dean, who would then endow the Pel? Biofuels Research Chair. Problem solved. By the time they've run through the current World Cup soccer roster, they'll have a cutting-edge research department. Think this scenario is farfetched? A Chinese solar company, Yengli Green Energy, is now sponsoring Germany's most famous soccer team, FC Bayern M?nchen. Sports and technology. NFL and Detroit.

Gamely battling the language bottleneck, S?o Paulo has advertised two-year university fellowships in Nature. Although many responses have come from younger scientists, officials have still invited coveted senior "celeb" scientists. FAPESP hopes that after those two years, perspective candidates willing to learn Portuguese (lessons included, accent optional) will stay.

A prediction: once Brazil battles through denial, bureaucrats will dig a little deeper, skip the grey-bearded low hanging fruit, and offer younger scientists plenty of room to grow along with the economy. Explaining to the Economist:

"You can have your own laboratory here," says Anete Pereira de Souza, a plant geneticist at the University of Campinas, another big S?o Paulo state university. "You can start an entire new area of research. Here, you're a pioneer."

Just be patient and start taking your samba lessons.

Do you expect to travel a lot during your career?

Photo: Sao Paulo traffic-- Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz Mariordo-- wikicommons
Photo: Sugar cane harvest-- BP website
Photo: beach-- wikicommons