The Brazilian software engineering community is fairly active when it comes to publishing papers in international venues. Every year there are several papers that appear in the main track of the conference. If considered the other tracks (short papers, demo papers, industry track, etc), chances are that there would be dozens of Brazilian papers. And this is not an exaggeration. Take ESEM 2019 as an example. This year, there were nine papers accepted in the main track with at least one Brazilian author, in addition to six papers in the new ideas track and seven other papers in the industry track. Important to say that ESEM this year took place in Brazil, so Brazilian researchers may decided to submit as many papers as they could to ESEM, since it was easier to travel.
However, the international reputation of Brazilian SE community may hide the real challenges of doing research in Brazil. In this blog post I share some of my thoughts in conducting research in Brazil. I organize these challenges in terms of research dedication, funding, and students.
Research in Brazil is mostly conducted by professors and their students. Although there are some companies that value applied research, they are not that many. As a professor, in a traditional 40 working hours per week, we often have 20 hours for research and 20 hours for teaching. That said, professors are almost never free from teaching activities, and every semester we have the same 20 hours teaching workload. Although teaching activities become soft after some semesters teaching the same course (you don’t need to create new teaching materials over and over again), we still need to teach the classes, grade the exams, help students, etc. TAs are rarely available so we could hardly delegate these activities. On the other hand, the number of students is often much smaller (around 40) when compared to the 700 students in introductory programming courses in Europe.
That said, we only have (paid) 20 hours per week to do research. We should use this time to do all kind of research related work, such as writing grant proposals, reviewing papers for conferences and journals, attending meetings, writing code, guiding to students, etc. Given that it is barely possible to deal with all of this working only 4 hours per day, I often hear some Brazilian researchers saying that they have to sacrifice teaching in order to keep their research pace. Needless to say that working on the weekends or late at night is not uncommon.
This is perhaps the most challenging thing for doing research in Brazil. Thanks to the nature of software engineering works, most of the time we do not need expensive things for doing to notch research. A commodity computer works most of the case. Obviously, if we want to do fancy things we may need better computers, advanced equipments, or maybe pay for developers to participate in our experiment. During my PhD I was working with energy consumption, and my advisor had to buy some hardware so I could do other experiments. All of this costs money. Sometimes a lot of money.
In Brazil, we have one main funding agency that we could apply for research grants – the CNPq. I would say that CNPq is the equivalent of NSF, expect that CNPq operates with a much lower budget. CNPq has one main grant proposal which is called the Universal grant. Universal usually opens for submission every year and it supports all kinds of research: from biology to chemistry to computer science. This grant has three levels. The initial one is up to R$ 30.000,00 (around US$ 7.000,00) while the top one is up to R$ 120.000,00 (around US$ 28.000,00). These grants last for 3 years. One important thing is that when you have a grant accepted you could not apply for the next year grant: you should await for your grant to be done to apply for another grant. Given that CNPq is a national funding agency, most of Brazilian researchers rely on it. Researchers that graduated around 2015 onwards could only apply for the initial level, which means that often junior researchers have U$S 2.5K to use for research per year (if they are fortunate to have one grant accepted). Remember that registrations for software engineering conferences are around US$ 1000. CNPq also provides scholarships for distinguished scholars which, depending on the level, varies from US$ 250 per month to US$ 350 per month. During the year, CNPq also opens other grant proposals in particular areas. But as far as I can recall, there was no other grant that SE researchers could directly apply for (we could apply indirectly, for instance, if you collaborate with other researchers from other areas). However, the amount provided is more or less the same of what Universal provides. There are also state funding agencies, but these agencies operate on their own schedules and interests. For instance, the funding agency of my state did not open a single grant opportunity during the last three years that I could apply for.
The good thing is that we do need to use this CNPq’s funding to pay for students. There is another national research agency that is responsible mostly for scholarships for students – the CAPES. CAPES supports thousands of grad students enrolled in master and phd programs in Brazil. We as researchers do not need to apply for any CAPES grant in order to get funding for students. Instead, CAPES provides directly to the grad school a number of n scholarships. Then the grad school decides how they will prioritize these scholarships. More concretely, what happens is if the student achieves a good score in the selection process of the grad school, it is very likely that she will receive a scholarship during 2 years, if she is doing a master, or 4 years, in case of a phd. However, the value of the scholarship did not change during the last 5 years, and it’s become a bit complicate (not to say impossible) for students to afford a living in big cities. CAPES pays US$ 500,00 for master students per month and US$ 510 for phd students. Moreover, if your student receives one of these very competitive scholarships, the student should not do any other kind of work (even if she needs to complement the salary for living purposes).
The current political scenario is not helping much. I will not dig into this but essentially research institutions (CNPq, CAPES, universities, etc) were facing a strong cut in their budget and even basic things such as security and electricity were compromised. More on this online here, here, or here.
As a consequence of lack of scholarships (and/or its outdated value), less students are becoming interested in joining grad school. For those that still have the dream of becoming a researcher, if English is not a barrier, they are happily applying for msc/phd positions abroad. During this academic year, I wrote five recommendations letters for students interested in pursing a researcher career abroad. For the sake of comparison, I wrote only one recommendation letter for a student interested in doing a master in Brazil. I know it is not statistically significant, but still. Moreover, some colleagues of mine have also mentioned to me that they don’t have any students (or no students have looked for them during this year’s selection).
With this lack of students, some colleagues (myself included) argue that have two options: do all the work without students or place a lot of effort on undergrad students. I am particular fine with either approaches. However, undergrad students are, say, less stable than grad students, in the sense that they could easily get more money if they work for companies, instead of participating in undergrad research programs (which in my university pays less than US$ 100 per month and requires full time dedication). Moreover, undergrads may not be mature enough to create large scale systems, so the kind of work that they do is rather limited. Anyway, I have been working with several undergrads during the last two years, and overall all the effort pays off.
After reading this blog post, I don’t want you to think “hey, look at these poor Brazilians.. I am so sorry to hear about your funding situation”. Instead, next time you meet a Brazilian at an international conference, rest assured that it was a lot of hassle to make that happen (and invite him/her to a drink).