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In 1968, J. G. Crowther1 wrote: “Science is becoming increasingly important in human affairs and in the actual working of daily life. Studies are being made on how it can be better organised so as to become more fruitful and serve the needs of humanity more efficiently.”
If these words illustrate well how science may serve society, they also give a good idea of what my daily working life is about. For the last 4 years I’ve been directly involved in science communication (among other things) for the British Council in Brazil, and nearly over a year now I have been working as regional manager for Northeast Brazil where I am leading the Council’s national science communication projects. The British Council is the UK’s International Organisation for Educational and Cultural Relations, whose purpose is to build and strengthen mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries. It has over 200 offices in 108 countries, five of these covering each of the different regions of Brazil, my home country.
The remit of the Council is centred around three main streams: Learning, Society, and Creativity. Brazil’s new government has clearly stated that it sees improvements in education, human rights, and social inclusion of minorities as among its main priorities and we can work on some of these issues in partnership with the British Council. In our office in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, we focus mainly on education and English language teaching, social inclusion, and science. Through science communication (Creativity), we seek to encourage and support a public dialogue about social and ethical issues arising from scientific advances.
Always a people person
But let me first explain how I got involved in this type of activity. When I was in high school in Brazil (circa 1978), physics was my favourite subject so I assumed that one day I would become an enthusiastic physicist. I loved the idea that I could explain life through science. But, towards the end of my final year, I suddenly had a vision of myself: nose stuck in books and working late hours in a laboratory in the hope that perhaps one day I would discover something that would make a difference to the world. I had no doubt a scientific career would be interesting, but I have always been a ‘people person’ and I perceived that science (in its most traditional form) would prevent me from having a professional life where I would interact with a variety of people. Little did I know then that it could be so different! So I decided to study occupational therapy (OT).
In the meantime I fell in love, got married, and spent a year in a kibbutz in Israel … so in the end I actually didn’t study OT. As I was already teaching English to support myself, I decided to study languages instead. For almost 15 years I taught and trained teachers and ended up becoming director of studies at an International House London (a renowned English language school) branch in Pernambuco.
This was an important period in my life, because I developed skills that would prove essential to my future career, such as team-working, self-awareness, relationship building, and leadership and mentoring skills. Around the middle of 1996, however, and as much as I enjoyed teaching, I was doing some soul searching–I was yearning for something I could not explain. By then, I had 2 little girls and was back in Recife.
Reading the papers one day, I saw a vacancy for a job as projects and exchanges assistant at the British Council office in Recife. The ad caught my attention because I had loved my experience of living in the UK. (Through my dad’s work as a scientist, I had lived abroad for more than 10 years, mostly in the United States and England.) Although I was keen to work for the British Council, I seriously didn’t think I’d have a chance, but my curiosity got the better of me and so I decided to send my CV. To my great surprise, I got the job!
My first job at the British Council consisted mostly of managing a British Embassy scholarship programme which, for example, meant having to interview, select, and later organise placements for Brazilian candidates at UK universities. After a couple of years as projects and exchanges assistant, I was promoted to the position of manager. This gave me the unique opportunity of chairing meetings with key contacts, such as researchers, policymakers, educators, and ministers in key British and Brazilian institutions.
At that time I felt that I needed to expand and consolidate my knowledge of world issues to better promote the Council as a strong partner for other countries. I decided to get a BA in international relations at FIR (University of Recife), for 4 years as an evening course. It wasn’t easy when I was still working full-time, as it kept me away from my teenage girls on many an evening, but they supported my decision and the results made it all worthwhile. The course has given me professional confidence to express my opinions on important issues, be it politics, economics, or human rights. I thoroughly enjoyed my work and thrived on the challenges it brought every day.
In July 2003, there was a global restructuring of the British Council’s operations and I was offered my current position of regional manager of Northeast Brazil and project leader for the national science communication projects. I was excited by this new challenge, but I was unsure of myself in the beginning. Although I was brought up in a science environment and had had an early ‘affair’ with science, I had no real scientific knowledge. So it was very much a case of learning on the job and I was given the chance to visit UK scientists and have meetings with key Brazilian science institutions, to learn about their programmes and priorities. I also had no significant experience in managing an office of 11 people (previously I worked with just one assistant) or handling a large budget.
But, I wasn’t alone. I had competent and enthusiastic colleagues who supported my nomination and, in so doing, strengthened my self-confidence. One of the reasons I felt I could and must rise to the task was the fact that it was the first time in almost 20 years of existence that our office was going to be led by a Brazilian, and a woman!
Engage Brazil and UK in a closer relationship
Over the last 4 years we have run a series of events under our science communications project which have contributed to engaging Brazil and the UK in a closer relationship and have led to increasing mutual understanding. For example, we have worked with scientists and science policy authorities such as the British Association, the London Science Museum, the Office of Science and Technology, and key science education specialists both in the UK and in Brazil. We have run seminars to discuss the role of all these different actors in improving science communication, with regard to important issues such as genetically modified food and cloning. We have organised workshops with the objective of sharing successful experiences in narrowing the gap between science and society and in science education generally.
In March 2005, we are organising a Brazil-UK Science Festival in partnership with many key Brazilian and British institutions. The festival will have as its core activity (see panel) workshops on different themes, such as science and government, science for social development/inclusion, science centres, and science education.
Although I come from a social science background, some of my colleagues are science graduates. I would say that you don’t need very specialised scientific knowledge to work in international affairs, but someone in my position would benefit greatly from having a science background. And in the same way I acquired science knowledge on the job I believe that natural scientists can learn about the main aspects of international relations on the job. They just need to have the interest and look for opportunities of finding out what is going on in the world.
To me, the British Council has been my school outside of school and I have learned a tremendous amount here. Not just the usual business skills, such as report writing, project planning, budget bidding, working strategically, and so on. I have above all learned about perceptions, and how dangerous it is to assume that people see you the way you see yourself. Likewise, I learnt how to put myself into other people’s shoes, again and again. Other very important skills I have developed are the ability to embrace changes, share your mistakes, and having the courage to take risks.
Science is shaping my work in the Council. It is the platform that allows cross-border understanding and the opening of new opportunities for the debate of issues upon which the whole future of Earth depends.
The modern dictionary2 says, “Science is the study and control of nature as it is, or might be, useful to mankind.” To my mind, the needs of mankind must not be discussed behind doors, but in an open forum. Creating opportunities for debates is my mission in science and in the British Council.
1 J. G. Crowther, in Scientific Type (Barrie & Rockliff, London, UK, 1968)
2 Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary (Cambridge University Press, UK, 1988)