Natal is the capital of the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, one of the poorest in Brazil. The state contributes less than one percent to the country's GDP, and the illiteracy rate in Natal is nearly twice the national average.
But this city has now become the grounds for a bold new experiment that will test whether science can leverage economic and social transformation for the region. The International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (IINN), built on hilly farmland 20 kilometers outside the city proper, incorporates a 25-lab research building, a free health clinic, and a school for children ages 11 to 15. The so-called "campus of the brain" is envisioned as the first of a series of Max-Planck-like institutes scattered across Brazil, the beginnings of a renaissance for the country's scientific research.
Brazilian-born Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis first conceived the IINN in 2003 as a means of reversing the brain drain from his homeland. By 2007, Nicolelis and two fellow Brazilian scientists at Duke had raised $25 million toward the project, a sum matched by President Inácio Lula da Silva after he visited the campus last August. (President "Lula" has been so impressed by Nicolelis' efforts that he recently tapped the neuroscientist to create a science curriculum for some 354 new national technical high schools.)
Plans for the IINN to scale up to a 5,000-student school and build additional lab space, a larger health center, a sports complex, and an eco-park highlight an important dimension of Natal's development: the idea that science advances only by fostering social involvement, by extending out from the ivory tower into the community. It also follows the "science park" trend: Ultimately the IINN will form the kernel of a 1,000- to 2,000-hectare biotech park for energy, IT, and pharmaceutical businesses. As Nicolelis and Lula put it in a February editorial, "This giant of the tropics has finally awakened." Maywa Montenegro
Emergent Science City: Natal, Brazil
Posted November 20, 2008
Originally appeared in Seed 19