Cooperation agreements involve research funding agencies, UK-based companies and 26 British universities (image: crystal deformation/ University of Warwick)
Published on 05/13/2021
By Claudia Izique | Agência FAPESP – For the past ten years researchers based in São Paulo State, Brazil, and the United Kingdom have been conducting joint research on a diverse array of subjects from the immune response to Zika virus and the chronology of settlement by indigenous tribes in the Jê language family to the impact of the biogas industry in a sustainable economy and the use of undersea salt caverns to store the carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in crude oil.
These collaborative projects are the result of cooperation agreements between FAPESP and institutions such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI, since 2009), the British Council and the Newton Fund, UK-based corporations that operate in Brazil including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Shell and AstraZeneca/MedImmune, and 26 British universities. FAPESP funds researchers in São Paulo State, while UK institutions fund British researchers involved in the same projects.
“The UK has become the main partner in funding research for FAPESP’s projects. To a large extent this has happened because when FAPESP started its international collaboration strategy in 2007, the UK mobilised leading organisations such as the research councils now integrated as UKRI, alongside the British Council, Newton Fund and universities, facilitating the interactions in question,” said FAPESP’s Scientific Director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz.
Between 2009 and the start of 2019, FAPESP awarded 400 research grants. They consisted mainly of regular grants (229), followed by grants to support visiting researchers (69) and grants to support the organization of scientific meetings (56), which were linked to 80 scholarships in the period. These grants were also linked to 22 Thematic Projects, a category involving collaborative research with ambitious goals and funding for up to five years.
The results of this collaboration are also evidenced by growth in the number of scientific publications co-authored by researchers from São Paulo State and the UK. The number rose 173% in the period 2010-16, according to Incites Thomson Reuters 2016. It reached 5,611 in the period 2016-18 according to the same source, lagging only the number of publications co-authored by researchers based in São Paulo and the US.
“The number of collaborative projects rose significantly in the period. The volume of co-authored scientific publications grew, and their scientific impact was three times that of publications by the two regions separately,” Brito Cruz said.
Researchers based in the UK and São Paulo State who are collaborating on research projects and publications will meet on February 11-12 at FAPESP Week London, an event held as part of the UK-Brazil Year of Science and Innovation (YoSI) 2018-2019 (click here for the FAPESP Week London programme).
The partnership with UKRI resulted in 25 joint calls for proposals, leading to the selection of 75 projects funded by FAPESP and UK institutions, including the Biotechnological and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Medical Research Council (MRC).
Supported by FAPESP and MRC, for example, João Santana da Silva, affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP-USP), and Daniel Altmann of Imperial College London in the UK, with the collaboration of William Kwok, a biochemist at Benaroya Research Institute in the USA, mapped the human immune response to Zika virus.
One of the first challenges was identifying which viral peptides are recognized by defence cells and induce an immune response. “We arrived at several important peptides capable of inducing an immune response to Zika,” said Santana da Silva, principal investigator for the project. The study also showed “huge cross-reactivity” between Zika and other viruses. “This hinders serological diagnosis,” he noted (for more about the project, see bv.fapesp.br/en/auxilios/99303).
Besides requiring joint calls for proposals, the agreement with UKRI allows researchers in the two countries to submit projects at any time to FAPESP, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), ESRC, BBSRC, MRC, NERC, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), in addition to BBSRC’s FAPESP Pump-Priming Awards (FAPPA).
Paulo Dantas de Blasis, a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP), and José Iriarte of the University of Exeter, for example, won support from FAPESP and AHRC respectively to produce a consistent chronology of settlement by the Jê indigenous communities who lived in an area between southern São Paulo and the northern portion of Rio Grande do Sul State 1,200 years ago and were ancestors of today’s Kaingang and Laklãno/Xokleng ethnic groups.
The study documented the sedentary lifestyle of these pre-Columbian people, describing how they domesticated plants and used pottery, and how some dual-use areas were both ceremonial and residential (for more information, see Pesquisa FAPESP magazine at revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/en/2018/06/28/settlers-and-farmers/).
In these ten years of partnership, interaction between researchers based in São Paulo State and the UK has increased thanks to the establishment of new cooperation agreements between FAPESP and the British Council (the first was signed in 2005) supporting the organization of symposia for research groups from both countries to discuss future collaboration. In 2009 these institutions were joined by the Newton Fund, and since then collaboration between the two countries has strengthened further.
The Newton Fund is a UK government initiative to foster economic and social development in partner countries through support for scientific research and innovation. Funding is delivered by British organisations – UKRI, the British Council, UK Academies, Innovate UK and the Royal Society – and institutions in partner countries. In Brazil the Newton Fund’s first partner institution in this area was FAPESP, followed by the National Council of State Research Funding Agencies (CONFAP).
Reinaldo Giudici, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School (POLI-USP), and Adam Hawkes of Imperial College London, for example, are supported by FAPESP and the Newton Fund via NERC/UKRI to produce a set of technical, economic and environmental studies regarding integrated biogas production processes in the sugar and ethanol industry.
“At the micro level, for biorefineries, the studies involve mathematical modelling and analysis of the dynamics of the bioethanol production process and its integration with anaerobic biodigestion of sugarcane waste such as vinasse and trash for the production of biogas,” Guidici explained.
This integration, he added, would enable biorefineries to expand production to include electricity from boilers burning sugarcane bagasse by cogeneration, and biogas as well as bioethanol. If properly connected to the distribution infrastructure (ethanol and gas pipelines, and the power grid), these products would meet demand from consumers more efficiently.
“At the macro level, in terms of the overall energy system in São Paulo State and Brazil, the studies encompass projections of demand for energy in different sectors, identification of infrastructure bottlenecks to be removed in order to meet future energy needs, and models for forecasting electricity and gas characteristics that take into consideration seasonal variations, land use, carbon sequestration, potable water quality, and the environmental impact of biogas production,” he said.
Collaboration between Brazil and the UK has been fruitful. Last year a project developed by Juliano Coelho da Silveira, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Animal Science and Food Engineering School (FZEA-USP) in Pirassununga, in partnership with Niamh Forde of the University of Leeds was shortlisted for the 2018 Newton Prize in its first edition for Latin America. The Newton Prize is awarded each year to projects that demonstrate the best scientific or innovation contribution to the economic development and social welfare of Newton Fund partner countries.
The project, which set out to investigate the role of extracellular vesicles in pregnancy and generate biological samples for the analysis of embryo development, was selected in a call issued by FAPESP and CONFAP in Brazil, jointly with the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society.
The agreements between FAPESP and UKRI, reinforced by the British Council and Newton Fund, have expanded the opportunities for research collaboration and attracted the attention of British universities. Between 2009 and 2019 the number of universities with which FAPESP has cooperation agreements jumped from one to 26.
Pedro Henrique Cury Camargo, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-USP), and Edman Tsang, a professor at the University of Oxford, for example, are investigating plasmonic metal nanoparticles (MNPs) deposited on semiconductors and their applications in photocatalysis, especially to generate hydrogen by water splitting. The collaboration combines Camargo’s expertise in the synthesis of shape- and size-controlled metal nanoparticles with the catalysis testing and characterisation capabilities of Professor Tsang’s group. It began in October 2017 and is scheduled for completion at end-2019.
Besides bilateral cooperation, British and Brazilian researchers also participate in collaborative projects involving multilateral research efforts under the aegis of a programme called São Paulo Researchers in International Collaboration (SPRINT), which provides seed funding to support research partnerships.
Gabriel Teixeira Landi, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP), and Mauro Paternostro of Queen’s University Belfast, for example, had their research proposal selected in the second SPRINT call of 2017. They are studying non-equilibrium quantum thermodynamics, addressing the concept of irreversibility and developing theoretical constructs based on new measures of entropy production for application to paradigmatic problems. Other projects selected in the same call involve collaboration between Brazilian researchers and colleagues from institutions in Australia, France, Spain and the US, as well as the UK.
Engineering Research Centres
The agreements FAPESP has entered into with British companies include one with BG E&P Brasil Ltda., which has since become a subsidiary of the Shell group, and another with GlaxoSmithKlein (GSK).
The partnership with BG, now Shell, dates from 2013 and has resulted in the creation of the Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), one of several Engineering Research Centres (ERCs) set up by FAPESP and partner firms to conduct strategic research with long-term funding. The Centre for Innovation in New Energies (CINE) is another partnership with Shell.
RCGI is hosted at the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School (POLI-USP), selected in a Shell-FAPESP joint call for proposals. Its mission is to investigate the sustainable use of natural gas, biogas and hydrogen, and the management, transport and use of CO2.
One of its most striking projects seeks a solution to a key challenge in subsalt oil and gas extraction that consists of constructing caverns in the salt layer with the capacity to store up to 8 million tonnes of CO2, to be separated gravitationally from the methane with which it is dissolved in oilwells (read more about the project at agencia.fapesp.br/29224).
CINE was established in 2018 as a partnership among the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Energy and Nuclear Research Institute (IPEN), as well as Shell and FAPESP. Its mission is to develop new energy storage devices with zero greenhouse gas emissions using renewable fuels and novel technological routes to convert methane into chemicals.
The partnership with GSK has led to the establishment of two ERCs: the Centre of Excellence for Research in Sustainable Chemistry (CERSusChem) and the Centre of Excellence in New Target Discovery (CENTD).
CERSusChem, hosted by the Federal University of São Carlos in São Paulo State, focuses on researching sustainable chemical products and processes that can be used to discover and develop new drugs, while CENTD is hosted by Butantan Institute and investigates molecular targets and signalling pathways involved in inflammatory-based diseases.