By Jussara Mangini | Agência FAPESP – The new reality created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest challenge to science in the last 100 years, significantly affected FAPESP’s activities in 2020 but did not prevent it from funding research projects in other areas.
In Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, FAPESP disbursed a total of $ PPP 423.3 million in 2020 to fund 21,233 projects, 45% in the area of Life Sciences, 37% in Natural Sciences and Engineering, 10% interdisciplinary, and 7.5% in Human Sciences. Of these, 7,027 new projects were selected among the more than 19,000 proposals submitted during the year.
Long-term projects, conducted under the aegis of Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs), as part of Thematic Projects or in connection with Young Investigator Grants, as well as projects supported by Regular Research Grants, received 46% of the total disbursed in the year. Regular scholarships for training in science and technology – from scientific initiation to postdoctoral research in Brazil and abroad – received 23%. Detailed information about this investment can be found in FAPESP’s 2020 Annual Report.
“The results presented in the report demonstrate FAPESP’s capacity to respond rapidly to a situation of extreme crisis without compromising its backing for other areas of research. This robustness will be a key driver of support for the scientific community in São Paulo state as part of our society’s efforts to resume development and normalcy when the epidemic has been brought under control,” says Marco Antonio Zago, President of FAPESP.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected demand for scholarships and grants, however. The report shows that the total amount of funds allocated by FAPESP to support research fell compared with 2019.
Restrictions on cross-border and domestic mobility, as well as the new safety protocols implemented by many laboratories, led to a decrease in the number of proposals submitted. In response, FAPESP took steps to extend grants and scholarships, and to allow more time for researchers to file financial reports. Sharp local currency depreciation also forced FAPESP to delay equipment imports temporarily, although these have now returned to normal.
“The purpose of the emergency and provisional measures we took was to guarantee short-, medium- and long-term financial commitments relating to scholarships, fellowships and grants already awarded, and to prepare for the resumption of research activities in São Paulo,” says Carlos Américo Pacheco, CEO of FAPESP.
Even so, FAPESP issued 13 calls for proposals in partnership with foreign organizations and signed seven new cross-border research cooperation agreements. At end-2020, FAPESP had 208 active partnerships with 167 foreign organizations and 41 with local organizations, resulting in support for 3,840 collaborative research projects: 2,392 co-funded for a total of $ PPP 47.9 million, and 1,448 supported solely by FAPESP for a total of $ PPP 43 million.
The urgency of combating COVID-19 required important changes to FAPESP’s research funding agenda. The report includes a special chapter on the measures taken, distributed along a timeline that also highlights some of the projects conducted on the disease and SARS-CoV-2 in the period, as well as the operational measures taken to keep its research funding activities running and support the scientific community.
The COVID-19 Special, which can also be read separately, shows that as early as March 2020, only a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the pandemic, FAPESP issued calls for proposals and other measures mobilizing more than 140 researchers affiliated with universities, research institutions and companies to investigate SARS-CoV-2, a hitherto unknown virus, pursue effective treatments, and contain the spread of the disease.
As part of FAPESP’s Research Program on Public Policies for the National Health System (SUS), in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), eight projects were approved to strengthen the capabilities of the SUS in addressing the challenges of COVID-19.
FAPESP also launched initiatives to facilitate the sharing of information on the disease. In June, in partnership with the University of São Paulo (USP), a private laboratory chain (Fleury Group), and two leading private hospitals in the city of São Paulo (Syrian-Lebanese Hospital and Albert Einstein Jewish Hospital), FAPESP created Brazil’s first open-access repository of anonymized data from patients tested for COVID-19 as a resource for research on the disease in a wide array of knowledge areas.
By the end of the year, it had been joined by Hospital das Clínicas, the hospital complex run by USP’s Medical School (HC-FMUSP), and Beneficência Portuguesa de São Paulo (BP), the largest private hospital in Latin America. It then held anonymized data from 485,000 patients, some 47,000 outcome records and more than 23 million clinical examination and laboratory test records uploaded by four hospitals and a clinical laboratory, offering huge possibilities for research on the disease in infected patients.
Since 2020, FAPESP has supported Phase 3 trials of CoronaVac, the vaccine manufactured in Brazil by Butantan Institute, in a joint funding effort with Todos pela Saúde, an initiative led by Itaú Unibanco (Brazil’s largest private bank), and research on the immune response to the vaccine developed by Oxford University in the UK in partnership with AstraZeneca, conducted by scientists at the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School (EPM-UNIFESP).
It is also funding eight projects to develop vaccines against SARS-CoV-2: four at USP, two at Butantan Institute, and two at startups supported by the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE). All eight are still at the pre-clinical stage.
FAPESP also participated actively in global efforts to combat the disease and in planning the post-pandemic social and economic recovery. It issued a joint call with the European Union for proposals to identify novel therapeutic agents and systems for effective and reliable early diagnosis relating to the virus. It also took part in a group of heads of research funding agencies in 25 countries that helped produce the United Nations Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery, launched in November 2020 to advance research priorities in strategic areas toward the building of a more equitable, resilient and sustainable future aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In the midst of public health restrictions, FAPESP held 62 online seminars between March and December 2020, with the participation of more than 11,000 researchers in Brazil and abroad, including the series of FAPESP COVID-19 Research Webinars organized in partnership with the Global Research Council (GRC).
“As of September 2020, all applications for grants and scholarships filed with FAPESP are required to include a Data Management Plan (PDG) to make research data more accessible and replicable,” says Luiz Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s Scientific Director.
Alongside initiatives relating to COVID-19, in 2020 FAPESP reinforced its strategy of funding innovation by allowing PIPE proposals to be submitted for analysis at any time (continuous flow) and creating a supplementary form of support for innovative companies in the shape of PIPE Invest, which calls for matching contributions from private investors to funding for market-mature projects with the aim of accelerating commercialization.
In 2020, PIPE invested $ PPP 33.2 million in 1,305 research projects conducted by innovative small firms. During the year, 213 companies in 48 cities in São Paulo state had 237 new PIPE projects approved, in addition to associated scholarships.
Thanks to its support for innovation via PIPE, FAPESP ranked third in the 2020 edition of Top 20 Ecosystems, in which the organization 100 Open Startups measures the volume and intensity of open innovation relationships established between startups and large corporations in Brazil.
Another pro-innovation initiative by FAPESP, this time in connection with the Engineering Research Center (ERC) program, was a new partnership with GSK to establish the Center for Oncology New Target Discovery (CONTD), the third ERC in partnership with the company.
Two new ERCs began operating during the year: the Center for Artificial Intelligence (C4AI), established in 2019 in partnership with IBM and hosted by the University of São Paulo’s Innovation Center (Inova); and the Brazilian Water Research Center (BWRC), a partnership with the Campinas Water and Sanitation Corporation (SANASA) hosted by the University of Campinas’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-UNICAMP). The same period saw the establishment of the Brazilian Center for Early Childhood Development, a partnership with Maria Cecília Souto Vidigal Foundation hosted by INSPER.
At the end of the year, FAPESP announced the results of its Science for Development call to support 12 research centers oriented to solving problems in health, law enforcement, food, agriculture and economic development, among others. This is a novel approach articulating projects conducted in partnership by researchers in agencies of the state government, and at universities and other public and private institutions in Brazil and abroad, as well as companies, and focusing on São Paulo state’s social and economic needs.
In 2020, FAPESP commemorated 20 years of the Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP), which has awarded 293 research grants, scholarships and fellowships to more than 1,200 researchers, and resulted in over 3,000 published scientific articles. During this 20-year period, BIOTA extended the understanding of biodiversity, provided a scientific basis for the creation of conservation guidelines, and above all supplied input for public policies.
Fulfilling its commitment to further science and technology dissemination to the public, FAPESP created a website with information on research projects and novel technologies relating to COVID-19, held a series of seminars as a partnership between Agência FAPESP and Butantan Institute, and published a guide to COVID-19 in Pesquisa FAPESP magazine, with systematically updated information on the disease.
Mainstream media coverage of the projects supported by FAPESP, as publicized by its own communications outlets (Agência FAPESP, the Innovative R&D newsletter, and Pesquisa FAPESP magazine), rose 33% to total 42,500 news stories and articles, for growth of 37% in local media and 13% in foreign media. Coverage by social media increased by a similar amount.