Scientific research yesterday and today

Image: Christina Morillo


The university cannot be limited to providing services to companies, but producing knowledge that impacts society and economic and social development

In January, a preliminary version of the National Postgraduate Plan (PNPG), to be implemented by 2028, was available for public consultation. By making a diagnosis of master's and doctoral courses and pointing out the perspectives for the training of researchers, The document also presents some elements for analysis of the scientific research situation. One of the aspects that draw attention is precisely to highlight the relationship between scientific research and the market – or more precisely, how universities have a weak relationship with companies from the perspective of research and innovation.

In view of this, one can see in the document an evident perspective of knowledge production, in particular, and of the nation, in general, focused on private economic objectives. This perspective contrasts with the dilemmas presented to universities by Florestan Fernandes and shows how, although decades have passed, the problems faced by the production of knowledge remain open in their relationship with society. In 1968, the sociologist pointed out the needs of scientific research at universities, in the article “The university and scientific research”:

“Science, as an institutionalized system of knowledge, is constantly reconstructed and improved, depending on man's progress in mastering and using his forms of knowledge. To be able to transmit these forms of knowledge, the university has to absorb the teaching of scientific research techniques; In order to be able to keep up with the incessant progress of the various branches of scientific knowledge, the university needs to produce, by its own means, at least some portions of that progress; In order to be able to communicate the techniques of scientific knowledge to the surrounding environment, the university needs internal ways of discovering, applying and evaluating such techniques”.[I]

This perspective contrasts with the ideas of expanding closer ties with business sectors. In the diagnosis presented in the base document of the PNPD, it is stated: “Although in the last two decades Brazil has established a robust research and postgraduate system, enabling advances in the training of people and expansion of scientific production, there have been little expressive consequences of improvement of technological and innovation indicators in companies. Part of this is due to the lack of agility so that the knowledge generated in academia is better used by companies and society, as well as the low demand from the Brazilian productive sector for the absorption and exchange of research and institutional activities”.[ii]

The Capes document points out that one of the reasons for low interaction between researchers and companies is due to the “absence of effective coordination between the non-academic productive sector and higher education institutions”, which makes it difficult “to identify market demands , resulting in research that is often less aligned with the needs of industry and society”.[iii] The document points out that “the lack of clarity regarding the demands of the Brazilian extra-academic productive sector” is also a challenge and that, in addition, “the absence of detailed analyzes and efficient mechanisms to identify the real needs of companies and of society limits the ability of academic institutions to direct their research to strategic areas of greater relevance to the country’s development”.[iv]

In a tone of regret, the document draws attention to “the incipient articulation between government institutions, responsible for promoting interaction between universities and the productive sector” and states that “investment is still scarce in robust public policies and incentive mechanisms collaboration between universities and companies reduces opportunities for technology and knowledge transfer”.[v]

The Capes document also points out as a challenge “the disconnect between the expectations of the non-academic productive sector and the time needed to carry out the research”, pointing out that there is no one “aligned with the immediate demands of companies, which often operate in a context of shorter results and deadlines”.[vi] The document also points out that “the financial resources allocated to research, innovation and development in Brazil are still not stable, sufficient or adequate”, highlighting that “the lack of robust investment compromises the capacity of institutions to promote innovative research, train highly qualified personnel in appropriate proportion, deepen relevant studies and develop technologies that respond to the country's social and economic demands and challenges”.[vii]

Therefore, when making a diagnosis of scientific research in Brazil, Capes points out as a weakness that it does not have a closer affinity with business segments or even that academic actions are centered on responding to the interests of the bourgeoisie. This perspective contrasts with that expressed by Florestan Fernandes when he looked at the problem of the university, still during the dictatorship. The product of a series of lectures and conferences, Florestan Fernandes published a complete diagnosis of universities in Brazil. The themes that end up standing out in his texts are the university reform imposed by the dictatorship and the debate about the character of the university.

In this debate, to meet what was called a “multifunctional vision”, he pointed out that the university should define and organize itself based on four “essential purposes”, defined as follows: “First, to meet the cultural mission, which consists of the transmission and in the conservation of knowledge. Second, in carrying out its investigative mission, on which the increase and progress of knowledge depends. Third, to satisfy its technical-professional mission, linked to the training, in number and quality, of the level of personnel that society needs. Fourth, to fulfill its social mission, which leads it to remain at the service of society, as one of the dynamic factors of the intellectual lifestyle and the evolution of culture”.[viii]

For the sociologist, meeting these four missions was necessary so that the university could fulfill its educational role and in the development of science and technology. Florestan Fernandes stated: “The cultural mission of the university of our era is inextricably linked to the part that science and scientific technology play in conditioning our lifestyle or shaping our civilization. The largest part and the most dynamically important part of the knowledge to be conserved and transmitted comes from science and scientific technology. The university’s research mission revolves equally around both.”[ix]

The emphasis that Florestan Fernandes makes on the university's mission draws special attention, considering that, nowadays, Capes is more concerned with the interests of businesspeople in relation to research. Florestan Fernandes states: “On the one hand, the university must absorb scientific research in the proportions in which it is essential to train and educate young vocations, both for routine research work in the various sectors of science and scientific technology and for the effort of original creation and invention, which varies from one field to another and according to the relative degree of advancement of each field. On the other hand, it must be in a position to directly welcome and stimulate the investigations that are necessary for the integration of medium or long-range theories. The university is not condemned to fundamental research that seeks pure knowledge and the construction of general theory. But only it can provide material, intellectual and moral support for creative production that transcends specialization, immediacy or particularism”.[X]

From this perspective, solving problems and meeting immediate interests presented by businesspeople could not be among the objectives of scientific research. The development of research and innovation must be focused on collective interests, with a view to economic and social development to be appropriated by society as a whole. In this sense, it cannot be limited to current social structures, which can prevent actions that escape market control.

Florestan Fernandes pointed out that “[…] the social mission of the university today takes shape as part of the challenge that science and scientific technology pose to the old structures of the economy, society and culture. The final integration of civilization based on science and scientific technology requires the dissolution of social, economic and political formations inherited from the remote or recent past.”[xi]

The Capes document, when referring to the budget problem, points to the need to seek financial incentives for research in partnership with business segments. However, the financial problem is much more complex and affects the base much more than the eventual results of research and innovation indicators.

In his time, Florestan Fernandes made a diagnosis that remains current regarding the structure of scientific research in universities: “Most researchers need to dedicate their energies to instrumental purposes and conditions – such as obtaining funds, personnel contracts, technical means of research, etc., as if certain efforts should be eternally repeated. Even where these conditions are relatively satisfactory (at least during some periods of time), the human barrier presents insurmountable obstacles. There are few researchers and, among them, it is difficult to recruit staff for targeted research projects. Thus, the shyness of the social environment with regard to encouraging scientific research and the rigidity of the university in relation to its investigative mission lead to a reality that cannot be easily overcome”.[xii]

Just the fact that researchers still today do not have the guarantee of carrying out projects of a longer duration, having to periodically compete for internal and external funding calls for their institution or even not having the guarantee that they will have a structure for as long as they need. , are reasons to think about the relevance of these words by Florestan Fernandes. This structural problem impacts what Florestan Fernandes called “training research, basic for the training of increasing numbers of researchers”, where there is an inequality in obtaining “resources to productively organize the student’s introduction to the elementary routine of scientific research” .[xiii]

This situation became even worse, given the quantitative evaluation methods, at the time of their inception, but already presented as harmful by Florestan Fernandes. It is observed that, given the limitation or even scarcity of resources, it is common that, even today, “[…] verbal teaching of the rudiments of research techniques prevails, with serious harm to the scientific training of students and to society, which will not have the raw materials it needs and will have to bear the indirect costs of training these young people, in the careers in which they can be used”.[xiv]

On the other hand, contrary to what many managers at universities think, none of this is limited to carrying out works or investing in equipment without planning. Florestan Fernandes pointed out: “The issue is not limited, as one might think, to increasing the number of rooms, multiplying laboratories, expanding the teaching staff of master researchers, etc. It is much more complicated, involving everything from strictly educational selection criteria, learning organization and guidance techniques, to the coexistence of independent people, with unequal experience, but with comparable powers of achievement and decision-making, the programming of a complete process planning and execution of research, intellectual debate of a positive nature, the production and objective evaluation of an original work, etc.” [xv]

This debate about the structure is also expressed in the question of the composition of professionals available to work in the research. Florestan Fernandes pointed out that “[…] the promotion of scientific research requires special conditions, with a growing influx of material and financial resources, a defined policy of attraction, selection and retention of young talents, training and expansion of highly competent researchers, institutional conditions for organizing and motivating very complex and delicate forms of intellectual work, specific patterns of competition, cooperation and solidarity, etc. None of this can happen overnight.”[xvi]

At universities, the retention of researchers is focused on postgraduate studies and is overwhelmingly done through scholarships, whether for postgraduate students or visiting researchers. However, in addition to the determined and limited time, these bonds, in general, are expressed by precariousness, which has even resulted in the increasing mental illness of both students and researchers.

This is a topic that received an explicit opinion from Florestan Fernandes, with regard to researchers in training: “To meet the new type of student, who starts to “live”, “work” and “produce” at school, it needs to transform itself in its material structure, in its social organization – as this student has rights equivalent to their masters, in the use of school resources and provision of means for research”.[xvii]

Therefore, it can be observed that, even after almost sixty years since the specific reflections made by Florestan Fernandes, many of the problems still persist, although nowadays few people do not defend points that were still controversial in the 1960s, such as the importance of research at universities or the inseparability of research with teaching and extension. Whether the defense of this is serious or mere rhetoric is another discussion. As Florestan Fernandes highlighted in another classic text, referring to the limits of economic and social development, “we are faced with a bourgeoisie endowed with a moderate modernizing spirit and which, moreover, tended to limit modernization to the business sphere and immediate conditions economic activity or economic growth.[xviii] The limits of our universities and scientific research cannot be detached from the objective reality of how Brazil's uneven and combined development is expressed.

This is due to the need to think about the reality of research beyond the simple indicators that support government policies – number of graduates, published articles, registered patents, executed budget, among others. These are important elements, but they express a certain planning, and, if they have limits, obviously the political basis that supports them has gaps. Following in the footsteps of Florestan Fernandes, we understand that the university must “be positively estimated for what it can and should do, as an agency for the original production of knowledge and, therefore, as one of the key institutions in the progressive cultural autonomy of emerging nations”.[xx]

The university cannot be limited to providing services to companies, but producing knowledge that impacts society and the economic and social development of society as a whole, without responding to private demands and focusing on private profit.

*Michel Goulart da Silva He holds a PhD in history from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) and a technical-administrative degree from the Federal Institute of Santa Catarina (IFC).


[I] FERNANDES, Florestan. Brazilian university: reform or revolution? São Paulo: Expressão Popular, 2020, p. 364.

[ii] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 74.

[iii] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 76.

[iv] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 76.

[v] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 76.

[vi] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 77.

[vii] CAPES. PNPG 2024 – 2028: Preliminary version. Brasilia, Dec. 2023, p. 77.

[viii] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 360.

[ix] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 363.

[X] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 365.

[xi] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 363.

[xii] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 367.

[xiii] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 368.

[xiv] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 368.

[xv] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 371.

[xvi] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 372.

[xvii] FERNANDES Brazilian university, p. 370-1.

[xviii] FERNANDES, Florestan. Bourgeois revolution in Brazil: sociological interpretation essay. 5th ed. São Paulo: Globo, 2005, p. 142.

[xx] FERNANDES, Brazilian University, p. 360.

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