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Daniela Fontes Goncalves and Pedro Hirata, exchange students from Brazil studying neuroscience/biology at Western University's Robarts Research Centre in London, Ontario, pose for a photo in their lab April 23, 2012. (Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail)
Daniela Fontes Goncalves and Pedro Hirata, exchange students from Brazil studying neuroscience/biology at Western University's Robarts Research Centre in London, Ontario, pose for a photo in their lab April 23, 2012. (Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail)

EDUCATION

Canadian universities reach to Brazil for brainpower Add to ...

That the inaugural mission of Canadian education leaders to Brazil is being called “long overdue” should come as no surprise. With a population of nearly 200 million, Brazil is a growing economic powerhouse – currently the world’s seven-largest economy and rising fast. And since becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has emphasized relationship-building with South America, travelling to Brazil just last fall to deepen ties with business and government.

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A delegation of 30-plus Canadian university presidents arriving in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday follow in Mr. Harper’s footsteps. It is the largest effort to date by Canada’s post-secondary sector to expand research ties with Brazil and attract some of the tens of thousands of Brazilian students who will study outside their country in the coming years. And it was spurred by the Brazilian government’s announcement last fall of Science Without Borders, a $2-billion program to send 100,000 top university students abroad, all tuition and expenses paid.

As of 2010, a total of 650 Brazilian postsecondary students were studying in Canada; that same year, U.S. universities and colleges reportedly attracted about 9,000. But the Science Without Borders partnership being finalized by the Canadian delegation this week is expected to draw an additional 12,000 students to Canada over the next four years. Driving home the mission’s importance is the presence of Governor-General David Johnston, who is joining the group at Mr. Harper’s request to stress Canada’s eagerness for deeper relations.

The Science Without Borders students – who will stay in Canada up to a year before returning home to finish their degrees – are a welcome contribution to universities’ bottom lines and to the economy as a whole; in 2008, when Canada had many fewer study-abroad students, the economic benefit of hosting them was pegged at $6.5-billion. On a less measurable level, these students are seen as critical to diversifying campuses and forging long-term links to Brazil and its industries.

“Think of those people becoming senior leaders in business, in government, in science,” said University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope, who also chairs the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which is co-ordinating the trip. “If they’ve had a strong Canadian experience, they will tend to look to Canada for partnerships.”

That matters because innovation increasingly comes from talent that is more mobile between interconnected economies, said University of Western Ontario professor Ted Hewitt, an authority on Brazil and a visiting scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington: “Ideas can just as easily come from Nairobi as from New York or from Silicon Valley. In that context, you must link.”

That said, Canadian schools have been perceived as lagging in the race for global brainpower. While Canada attracts thousands of students a year from China and India, other countries such as France and Germany managed to send similar delegations to Brazil years sooner. Canadian universities only recently ramped up collective efforts to raise their international profile, and it took a program as lucrative as Science Without Borders to drive the current stampede to Brazil.

“I fail to be polite and diplomatic here: This is late,” said Britta Baron, provost at the University of Alberta, which was one of four schools that formed a more modest consortium two years ago to make inroads in South America.

This week’s mission, which includes a forum on university-industry linkages, dovetails with the Canadian government’s broader goal to build bridges between education and business; substantial amounts of money earmarked for research in the recent federal budget was directed to university-industry collaborations. The delegates’ week-long itinerary includes a roundtable of university presidents, visits to Brazilian campuses, and audiences with government ministers. But they know building a fruitful relationship takes more than a series of meetings.

“It’s one thing to sign a lovely agreement that articulates all these objectives,” said Mr. Johnston, who spent a combined 25 years as a university president. “It’s another thing to do the hard work of being sure that the marriage actually works.”

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INTERVIEWS

The vast ambition of Brazil’s Science Without Borders initiative – $2-billion worth of government funding, plus contributions from the private sector, to send 100,000 students away on full scholarships by the end of 2015 – has grabbed global attention. The Globe and Mail spoke to two Brazilian students studying in Canada, and one who will arrive soon, about why they chose to head north.

Pedro Hirata, 21

Undergraduate in biological science, University of Sao Paolo

Arrived at the University of Western Ontario in March through Science Without Borders

Why Canada?

Mr. Hirata researches ways to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease, and leapt at the chance to study in a Western lab run by professor and fellow Brazilian Marco Prado, with whom Mr. Hirata had published a paper the year previous while studying in Sao Paolo. “It was the perfect choice.”

Will you stay connected to Canada?

“Canada is a great place to do research in neurobiology, and if I had to choose [to live and work somewhere outside Brazil]it would definitely be here. I can totally imagine coming back.”

Renata Tostes, 24

Undergraduate in animal sciences, State University of Maringa

Arrived at the University of Alberta this month through Science Without Borders

Why Canada?

When Ms. Tostes won her scholarship, her Brazilian supervisor made introductions to professors whose work was closely related to hers in the U.S., Australia, and at the University of Alberta. She says that he wanted to come to Canada in large part because of the opportunities to do an internship here. “[After studying in Canada] I will be able to picture a new future for myself. I’ll have this experience of dealing with a different reality from what we have [in Brazil]”

Will you stay connected to Canada?

“Definitely. I’m loving it. After a year here, I think I will be able to picture a new future for myself.”

Mathias Barreto, 22

Undergraduate in chemical engineering, Federal University of Viçosa

Will arrive at Concordia University in June through Science Without Borders

Why Canada?

Mr. Barreto had already studied abroad in the U.S. when he applied to Science Without Borders, but a placement at Concordia to work on polymers that control the delivery of drugs in the bloodstream caught his attention. It was also an opportunity to improve his French, he says. “I always dreamed of going to Canada because, when I was a kid, every single Sunday we used to watch a program that talked about tourism in Canada.”

Will you stay connected to Canada?

“I hope so.”

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