Norbert Robers, head of the Communication and Public Relations Office and press spokesperson of the University of Münster, accompanied the Rector and representatives of the Brazil Centre on their trip to Brazil (from 6 to 11 February), which comprised a dense programme of about 15 meetings with numerous partners. Read below the results of this trip published as part of the dossier "connected and interdisciplinary".
Norbert Robers | 10.02.2023
Progress in all visits
The WWU delegation held numerous meetings over five days in three cities - an overview
"In view of the current state of the pandemic and the (scientific) political situation, the current moment is ideal to visit selected partner institutions in the country and thus establish impulses for an intensification of the existing cooperation", predicted the Scientific Director and the Managing Director of the Brazil Centre, Prof. Dr Bernd Hellingrath and Anja Grecko Lorenz before the trip of WWU Rector Prof. Dr Johannes Wessels to the largest nation in South America. Moreover, the last visit of a member of WWU rector's office to Brazil was four years ago. With whom did Johannes Wessels and the WWU delegation talk? What were the main topics? And how should the situation in the country be assessed after the change of government in January 2023? An overview of the most important stations:
Visit to the University of São Paulo (USP)
The USP is not just any of the around 2,600 Brazilian higher education institutions, it is one of the top 3 universities - not only in Brazil, but in all Latin America. Founded in 1934, it is by far the largest university in Brazil with almost 100,000 students. The USP maintains five hospitals, 70 libraries and 24 museums - in addition to the headquarters located in the Butantã district, the institutes and institutions are spread over eight other campuses throughout the state of São Paulo, which is roughly the size of Great Britain in terms of area.
On the other hand, according to the analysis of the German Academic Exchange Service, it is "the Brazilian university with the strongest research and the best international reputation". As reported by "Clarivate Analytics", USP researchers are responsible for around 22% of the total Brazilian scientific output. Then as now, USP graduates found and find themselves in the highest positions of Brazilian business, politics and society.
University partners and university representatives from all over the world interested in cooperation are queuing up - figuratively speaking - outside the doors of the USP rectorate. "As a newcomer today, we would have a hard time establishing such a multifaceted and intensive cooperation," emphasises Bernd Hellingrath. Now the continuity and creativity of the WWU, which has maintained contacts with Brazil for around 50 years is paying off and, with the founding of the Brazil Centre at the WWU and the liaison office in São Paulo in 2010 and 2012 respectively, it has proven the interest in long-term academic cooperation.
This morning, a large part of the rectorate accompanied Rector Prof. Dr. Carlos Gilberto Carlotti Júnior on the 4th floor of the big white building. "We would like to work even more closely with the WWU," emphasises Pro-Rector of Postgraduate Studies, Prof. Dr. Marcio de Castro Silva Filho. Johannes Wessels introduces the WWU with its current focus themes and challenges. The hosts are particularly interested in the Excellence Strategy, the WWU's support for students interested in start-ups in the "REACH EUREGIO Start-up Center" at the WWU and how one can "stimulate" PhD students to spend part of their doctoral period in Germany, at the WWU - or in Brazil.
However, the list of "cooperation highlights" between WWU and USP alone is impressively long. In 2007, both administrations decided to cooperate at the university level, which paved the way for participation in numerous programmes and generous funding from various organisations. Whether in law, computer science, physics, psychology, music, medicine, art history, chemistry, biology, philology: the list of currently ongoing research cooperation includes more than 20 subject areas involving over 30 scientists from almost all WWU departments.
In 2022, the WWU concluded a so-called cotutelle agreement with USP. The primary aim is for doctoral students to complete their doctorates under the supervision of at least two researchers from the participating universities and with a stay of at least six months at the respective partner university. A double doctoral agreement has been in place with the Faculty of Law since 2017, and the Department of Biology established a double Master's programme in 2016 that is still successful today. "WWU has the most extensive and intensive scientific and academic relations with USP. USP is the most important cooperation partner of the WWU in Brazil," summarises Anja Grecko Lorenz.
After about 45 minutes, USP rector says goodbye, the new health minister is waiting. Beforehand, he exchanges gifts with Johannes Wessels. "It is of great importance that the WWU and the USP remain in conversation at the highest level," emphasises Anja Grecko Lorenz. "The scientific relevance behind our joint projects is substantial", adds Johannes Wessels, who repeatedly tells his interlocutors about WWU's close partnership with the University of Twente and encourages trilateral projects. "The USP is a perfect fit for us."
Directly afterwards, the WWU delegation drives off - the grounds of the USP main campus cover several square kilometres - to meet Prof. Dr. Marcelo Zuffo, who runs the innovation lab at the University of São Paulo. "Our government is pushing innovation," underlines the engineer, who, like many other interviewees, is also interested in the WWU strategy of encouraging young people to start their own businesses. An exchange of ideas with those responsible for "REACH" is expressly desired and initial conversations about common interests and activities have already taken place.
Visit to the funding agency FAPESP
High up on the 14th floor resides Prof. Dr Marco Antonio Zago. From his office, he has a great view of one of the central traffic axes of São Paulo, the Avenida Paulista. Not this afternoon, however, because it is raining cats and dogs in the Brazilian economic and scientific metropolis. And only temporarily anyway, because in a few months the president and his staff will be moving back to the headquarters of the "São Paulo Research Foundation" (FAPESP) in the Lapa district. USP representatives also take part in the meeting, which once again shows the importance the University of São Paulo confers to its cooperation with WWU.
Since 2014, WWU has had an institutional agreement with FAPESP. At the core of the cooperation are joint calls for seed funding to prepare joint research projects between researchers from WWU and institutions from the state of São Paulo. The programme is called "Sprint", which enables interested parties to jointly tackle large research proposals with comparatively little money. The WWU has already been successful in this programme several times, and in the current call for proposals, the WWU is in the running with five applications. Once again, it becomes clear that in science there are essentially two questions: What can we specifically research together? How do we get the money we need?
For both questions, FAPESP, whose function and mode of operation can be compared to the German Research Foundation, is exactly the right and decisive address in the state and city of São Paulo. The foundation has 1% of the state's sales tax at its disposal every year - no other Brazilian state invests so much money in science and research. Last year, FAPESP provided around 243 million euros, divided, for example, into research projects (47%), scholarships including stays abroad (19%) and innovation research in cooperation with companies (9%).
"We must always think of research and knowledge transfer together," emphasises Rector Johannes Wessels. In addition, it is important to approach research projects in the most interdisciplinary manner and at the same time to involve industry in solving humanity's big problems, such as climate change and its consequences. A topic that naturally arouses great interest in the country with the largest share of Amazonian territory. "The last two governments were not very interested in the problems and challenges in this region, which is home to 25 million people," says Marco Antonio Zago. FAPESP wants to mobilise 100 million euros in the "Amazon+10 Initiative" in close cooperation with as many neighbouring states as possible in order to contribute to the preservation of the "green lungs of mankind". In any case, FAPESP has declared biodiversity, climate change, bioenergy and the further development of the healthcare system as priorities.
The FAPESP president, who has been in office since 2018 and previously served as USP rector and has been a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences since 1999, adds that the foundation also wants to continue to invest in the exchange of visiting professors and post-docs. Once a year, the foundation presents itself abroad with a "FAPESP Week" to promote its work and programmes. London, Paris, Barcelona and Tokyo were some of the venues for this kind of "road show". "Next time we will be happy to come to Münster," he holds out the prospect.
Working lunch with Ambassador Heiko Thoms, Brasilia
The address of the German Embassy is SES, 807, Brasília. In the capital, which was planned by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer and officially founded in 1960, whose structure resembles an aeroplane with a fuselage and two wings from above, there are no street names. All addresses are based on the compass direction and the number of residential and office blocks. Heiko Thoms has represented Germany in Brazil since 2020. Before that, Thoms, who studied law at the FU Berlin, worked as a diplomat at the United Nations in New York and at NATO in Brussels.
He is well informed about WWU's intensive relations with Brazilian universities and funding organisations. "Feel free to contact me and the embassy at any time if there is something we can do for you and the WWU here on site," he offers Rector Johannes Wessels. Traditionally, the German Centre for Research and Innovation (DWIH) in São Paulo, where the WWU also has its liaison office, maintains close contacts with Germany's diplomatic missions in Brazil - not least because the DWIH was also founded with financial support from the Federal Foreign Office and continues to be funded by it.
Heiko Thoms emphasises the great importance of the exchange between the Faculty of Law and the Brazilian Supreme Court - its significance for stability in the country cannot be estimated. He perceives a "great creative potential" especially in the younger generations in Brazil; one must offer the "many brilliant young people" as much room for manoeuvre as possible. Those who often travel to Germany will quickly understand when the diplomat assures them that "Germany can also learn a lot from Brazil in terms of digitalisation".
Visit to the "Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel" (Capes), Brasília
Prof Mercedes Bustamante, who was recently appointed Capes President, invested about an hour and a half of her time to meet us. At the beginning and end of the conversation on the 14th floor, the Chilean-born professor intersperses a few sentences in German. She did her doctorate in geobotany at the University of Trier from 1989 to 1993. She is an expert on interactions in ecosystems and holds a chair at the Ecology Institute at the University of Brasilia. "We are very happy that the new president has put improving Brazil's international relations back at the top of the agenda," she emphasises at the beginning of the conversation, which is also attended by the Director of International Relations, Rui Oppermann. The sigh of relief over the change of government runs through the entire trip and is a topic in almost every conversation.
With Capes, the scientist runs a powerful funding institution. A large share of scholarships and fellowships awarded in the country, whether it concerns so-called incoming or outgoing students, goes through the coordination office, which also organises and is responsible for the regular accreditation of all Brazilian higher education programmes. Between 2011 and 2016, Capes awarded around 100,000 master's, doctoral and postdoctoral scholarships for worldwide study and research stays. 67 Brazilians went to WWU on the basis of this programme.
Rector Johannes Wessels reports on WWU's close ties with the University of Twente, which cooperates also intensively with the University of São Paulo - and makes a strong case for promoting trinational research projects. In 2011, WWU concluded an institutional agreement with Capes, and last year the agreement was extended. A central element of this agreement is the establishment of a "Brazil Chair" at the WWU to expand cooperation between individual researchers, create networks and improve the visibility of the achievements of top Brazilian researchers in Germany. In concrete terms: 18 months' stay in Münster, which can optionally be divided into three visits of six months each. In addition, there is funding for a doctoral student and a postdoc. In the current call for proposals, five WWU scientists are eligible as hosts, including the political scientist Norbert Kersting and the physician Martin Götte. "We are happy and ready at any time to support the impressive efforts of the WWU towards more collaborations with Brazilian scientific institutions," Mercedes Bustamante stresses.
Signing of a "Memorandum of Understanding" with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro (Fiocruz)
Fiocruz is a nationally known and highly respected institution in Brazil - for several reasons. In 1900, the physician, bacteriologist, epidemiologist and hygienist Oswaldo Cruz founded an institute that later became today's foundation, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Health. With around four billion euros a year, it promotes national research and international cooperation - however, around 50% of this budget has been reserved for the production of one million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine every day since the beginning of the Corona pandemic.
12,000 employees in several contact points spread across the country, 48 own study programmes, nine journals, its own TV channel: Fiocruz, located on Avenida Brasil in the Manguinhos district on park-like grounds, is a "big player" not only in Brazil and Latin America. The foundation is considered one of the world's most important research institutions for public health. Proof of this is also that President Lula has appointed the Fiocruz president as the new Minister of Health.
And so, on this morning, it is the Vice-President for Research Rodrigo Correa who receives the WWU delegation with six other employees. His colleague Vinicius Cotta reports on the worldwide Fiocruz networking. There are 28 ongoing projects with German partners. Stephan Ludwig, who heads the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Münster, has a particularly long and intensive relationship. On February 15th, there was an online workshop of Fiocruz and WWU scientists on the question of the extent to which natural products can help fight infectious diseases.
Johannes Wessels introduces the WWU and emphasises the importance of the topics of sustainability and transfer - the progress and initiatives of the WWU's start-up centre "REACH" also meet with great interest in this circle. This also applies to the possibility of involving the German Research Foundation with possible co-financing for further cooperation. Why not cooperate on the Cotutelle programme with a binational doctorate? The scientific director of the Brazil Centre, Bernd Hellingrath, gladly takes up the suggestion of a Fiocruz staff member.
And then it becomes solemn for a few moments: Johannes Wessels signs the "Memorandum of understanding", with which the WWU and Fiocruz confirm their will to continue collaborating in several fields.
Meeting at the Rio de Janeiro branch of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)
The DAAD representative office in the Botafogo neighbourhood is one of the oldest in the world. Last year, the institution headed by Dr Jochen Hellmann celebrated 50 years of efforts to strengthen academic and scientific cooperation between Brazil and Germany. "In our thoughts, we are rolling out a red carpet for you today," said Jochen Hellmann, welcoming the delegation from Münster. The WWU is making "exemplary" progress with its activities in Brazil.
At the same time, how can the number of prospective students who want to study in the other country be increased? Jochen Hellmann advocates lowering the university admission hurdles for Brazilians in Germany, for example, by accepting their secondary school diplomas. On the other hand, it is important to show young Germans the many opportunities to acquire knowledge in Brazil, to make friends and to broaden their own horizons. In research, there is a strong awareness of the advantages of international cooperation in Brazil, but this has not yet reached students. Instead, there is still a lot of ignorance and prejudice on both sides. Nevertheless, it must be taken into account that Brazilian universities are very young compared to European universities and that the exchange culture established in Europe and North America still has to develop in Brazil. There are currently about 7,000 Brazilians studying in Germany; however only around 700 take the reverse path.
The concern about the exodus of talented minds, the so-called "brain drain", has been raised several times in recent days, reports Rector Johannes Wessels. That is why young Brazilians "must be encouraged to use their academic knowledge to start their own business" - a professorship is only one of several career paths.
It is only a detail, but it shows how closely DAAD staff in faraway Brazil follow developments at German universities: "May we still address you as a representative of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster?" asks Jochen Hellmann, alluding to the possible separation of the WWU from its namesake, Wilhelm II. "You may," answers Johannes Wessels. "Especially since our Senate alone decides on our name and that's why you're talking today exclusively to WWU staff who have nothing to decide in this matter."
After a detailed discussion, the President of the funding agency FAPESP, Prof. Dr. Marco Antonio Zago (3rd from left), thanked the delegation from Münster for the gift received