Transforming educational exchanges into strategic diplomacy.
During their meeting in Brazil in March last year, U.S. President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff discussed a plan to send 101,000 Brazilian students overseas to study science, engineering, mathematics, and technology-based disciplines. Announced soon after, the initiative, Science Without Borders, has signaled President Rousseff’s interest in marking her tenure by building a gateway for her country to the twenty-first century.
Just before their tête-à-tête, Obama had announced his own plans to send 100,000 American students to Asia and promised to unveil a similar initiative for Latin America in Santiago, Chile—the next stop on his 2011 Latin America tour. During their Brasília meeting, both leaders talked about the importance of using education to improve national science and engineering capacity to drive economic development, promote social mobility and enhance innovation.
What their joint initiative has also become is a tool for—and an example of—modern strategic diplomacy.
President Rousseff had already been working on a plan to use study abroad programs to internationalize Brazilian higher education and accelerate Brazil’s scientific and technological development. Impressed by the scope and ambition of the U.S. initiative, she committed to match it.
Four months later, in July 2011, President Rousseff rolled out Science Without Borders at the Presidential Palace, pledging her government to fully fund 75,000 scholarships for study abroad, and announcing commitments from Brazil’s private sector to fund an additional 26,000.
Initially, the focus was on a core group of countries with universities capable of taking a large influx of Brazilian students: the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Soon afterward, other countries such as China, Russia, India, Sweden, Ireland, and Belgium stepped forward to offer places at their universities to eager Brazilian students.
The first stage was to begin with a one-year program for undergraduates, who would return to Brazil to finish their degrees. The program would then expand to include masters and doctoral students as well as those pursuing post-doctoral research.
For President Rousseff, the program meant more than just the academic, scientific and technical skills that students would acquire. The president also realized the potential benefits that mastering foreign languages, especially English, would bring. Science Without Borders therefore included allocating funding and time for language training. There were also the skills and connections that were to be gained by such a massive undertaking. Providing internships at major science and technology companies and leading innovation laboratories and research institutions would mean that Brazilian students would combine study and practice—learning firsthand how to connect research to commercial industry and product development—and connect with technical professionals in the host countries.
How Did It Come to This?
The launch of Science Without Borders is not the first time Brazil has reached beyond its frontiers to jump-start important economic programs. The creation of Embraer, Brazil’s world-class aviation company in 1969, was the product of aeronautical engineering cooperation between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Brazil’s Aeronautical Training Center (CTA) and the Aeronautical Institute of Technology (ITA) in the 1940s. And Brazil’s agricultural research service, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropequaria (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation—EMBRAPA), revolutionized Brazilian agriculture, transforming Brazil from a food importer into the world’s second largest food exporter, through the training and education of many of its agronomists at U.S. land grant colleges and universities.
President Rousseff’s initiative, however, is bigger and more ambitious.
To begin, it is not confined to a single economic or scientific sector. Science Without Borders covers all aspects of scientific study: computer and information technology; mathematics; physics; biology; health science; marine science; industrial and electrical engineering; mining, oil and gas technologies; and systems analysis and industrial design.
The aim is to lift Brazil’s scientific and economic capabilities in a single generation.