Talking leadership 40: Antonio Meirelles on connecting research to a country’s challenges

Unicamp’s rector discusses harnessing the power of one of the continent’s most research-intensive universities for the public good

September 6, 2022
Source: UniCamp

University campuses are sometimes accused of being closed-off spaces, with little to offer the wider communities that surround them.

It would be difficult to say the same about the sprawling 3.5km2 shell-shaped main campus of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) on the outskirts of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, which hosts not one but two public hospitals. 

It is this outward-looking approach that rector Antonio Meirelles hopes to harness as he seeks to turn the institution’s research might to addressing the key issues facing both the university’s near neighbours, and the whole of Brazil.

Whether it is monitoring the climate for early warning signs of extreme weather events that could destroy homes and take lives or assisting local communities in setting up small companies by providing technical support, Meirelles hopes to show how universities can play a leading role in helping develop the largest country in South America. 

“The challenge is not only to make our research more important worldwide but also connect it to the challenges of Brazil; the economy, our social development, inclusion,” he says.

“We have to use the [United Nations’ sustainable] development goals as a kind of compass to guide our action in research and connect more of our research to the requirements of society. This is not only important in terms of socio-economic development but also as a strategy for defending universities for the future.”

Such public spiritedness is not purely unselfish of course. Since the election in 2019 of populist president Jair Bolsonaro, universities in Brazil have been under attack like never before, with budgets slashed and academic freedom undermined.

Facing the prospect of losing October’s election to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the right-winger has doubled down on the divisive rhetoric that won him support in the first place, while hinting that he may not leave the presidency, whatever happens.

Unicamp has been better shielded from such volatility than other universities in Brazil because of the more progressive outlook of the state government in São Paulo, which provides the majority of its funding.

While some elements – for example money for scholarships – have been frozen, the three state universities have had their budgets guaranteed for the past 30 years, which allows them to plan for the future, regardless of the actions of the federal government.

Meirelles half-jokingly says that if the candidates for president are looking for a model for supporting science and technology they could do worse that look at the arrangements in São Paulo, because this would be a “kind of heaven” for universities.

While he agrees that the political situation “has harmed the image of universities in the population”, he is diplomatic when discussing the upcoming election.

“What I think is important is we have someone in the presidency who recognises the importance of science and technology for our future,” he says, adding that Unicamp would receive any candidate that is open to discussing these ideas.

Indigenous influence

A key part of ensuring a university is equipped to tackle society’s issues is making sure the campus population is reflective of those it seeks to serve, Meirelles believes.

Brazil is a hugely diverse country that includes nearly 1 million people who classify themselves as indigenous – members of about 300 different tribes, most of which have their own distinct languages.

Meirelles admits not enough has been done to bring indigenous students into Brazil’s top universities but says this is crucial to “build a sense of national community” where everyone feels included in every part of the nation.

Of Campinas’ 20,000 undergraduates, around 250 identify as indigenous and Meirelles hopes this number will continue to grow over time. Deep-rooted barriers remain however, such as the financial difficulties some in indigenous tribes experience, and so Unicamp has upped its number of scholarships and the value of such schemes.

Such initiatives have benefits on both sides of course and Meirelles says having a more diverse campus population has begun to change the university’s research agenda and bring in topics that would not be considered traditionally.

He describes medical students from more diverse backgrounds noticing that the bodies they were given to dissect were all from black communities, partly because the corpses that are donated tend to come from poorer areas. Students organised a ceremony to thank those who were aiding the development of medical research, something that “would not have happened five or 10 years ago”.

Supporting both the bosses and the workers

Medicine is one of the strengths of Unicamp, with 15 per cent of its professors – 300 out of 2,000 – working in this field and accounting for 20 per cent of the institution’s budget.

The local area relied heavily on this expertise during the pandemic, which hit Brazil harder than almost any other country.

Again, much of what the university was trying to do – whether it was administering tests or promoting the value of wearing face masks – was being undermined by the federal government’s anti-science agenda.

Despite the challenges, the pandemic helped to reinforce the “importance of the public service universities provide and [the need for] science and technology innovation in health,” Meirelles says.

He believes this has opened up “an opportunity to improve our image in a very important way” and he has tried to use this to strengthen connections to private and public companies and other organisations related to science, technology and innovation.

He says he wants to “make bridges and help amplify our message that we can help societies fix the challenges of our times”.

However, such cooperation should not solely focus on solving problems that benefit the companies, Meirelles believes.

He gives the example of drivers working for the likes of Uber and Lyft in the “gig economy”, and points out that academics and scientists have been involved in developing research that reinforces the case for giving them more secure employment contracts and better benefits such as pensions.

“I don’t think universities have to only have relations with the companies to help them solve their problems. We have to have relations to the workers too, to the public agencies in order to defend society, to civilise the companies. They have to work for the improvement of society,” he says.

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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