Research 2030

Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities: A conversation with Professor Aluísio Segurado of University of São Paulo

March 17, 2021 Elsevier Season 2 Episode 1
Research 2030
Societal Impact, SDG Research & Universities: A conversation with Professor Aluísio Segurado of University of São Paulo
Show Notes Transcript

Five years ago, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an ambitious 2030 target to achieve an equitable future for all. Aligning research with the SDGs has offered the academic community a valuable way to demonstrate their impact. Then, in 2019 Times Higher Education launched its global Impact Rankings to track and report on universities' contributions towards the UN goals.

In this episode, our host Fernanda Gusmao, an Elsevier Solutions Manager, speaks with Professor Aluísio Segurado, Head of Research at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Professor Aluísio shares insights into the university's progress toward meeting the UN SDGs, their recognition in THE Impact Rankings, and how their work benefits both the University of São Paulo and Brazil.

Visit our webpage for the full show notes

About our guests:
Professor, School of Medicine, University of São Paulo , Brazil
MD, MSc and PhD. 
Full Professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine, University of São Paulo. 

While a full professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine, University of São Paulo, Aluísio is also in charge of the university institutional research office at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. The office manages the academic data to provide feedback to the university governance, particularly to the Rector’s office and to the academic community. 

His research focuses on human retroviral infections (HIV/AIDS and HTLV) with a particular interest in understanding the vulnerability of different population groups to viral acquisition, disease progression and response to interventions. His academic activities cross disciplines and encompass the fields of molecular virology, clinical medicine and public health. Visiting Scientist at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and also Technical advisor to the WHO.

Fernanda Gusmão is a research information manager at Elsevier. In this role, she supports universities and governments with research evaluation, development of collaboration strategies and impact assessment. Fernanda holds a Master's degree from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor's degree in International Relations.

Professor Aluisio and Fernanda did a similar podcast last year in Portuguese. You can also listen to that episode here:  Listen in Portuguese

Giacomo Mancini (00:00)

Hello, I’m Giacomo Mancini. Welcome to Research 2030, an Elsevier podcast series in which our hosts and guests discuss, debate and dissect complex topics research institutions face worldwide. And welcome to our first episode of season 2, in what we hope will prove an informative and inspirational 2021.

 In research circles, the word 'impact' is often closely linked to the phrases 'citation metrics' or 'university rankings.' These measures have long been used to evaluate the performance of individuals and institutions. Increasingly though, the emphasis is shifting. There is growing pressure to show how research benefits society in some meaningful way.

 Giacomo Mancini (00:50)

Five years ago, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set an ambitious 2030 target to achieve an equitable future for all. Aligning research with the SDGs has offered the academic community a valuable way to demonstrate their impact. Then, in 2019 Times Higher Education launched its global Impact Rankings to track and report on universities' contributions towards the UN goals.

 In this episode, our host Fernanda Gusmão an Elsevier Solutions Manager, speaks with Professor Aluísio Segurado Head of Research at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Professor Aluísio shares insights into the university's progress toward meeting the UN SDGs, their recognition in THE Impact Rankings, and how their work benefits both the University of Sao Paolo and Brazil.

Fernanda Gusmão (01:43)

Hello. My name is Fernanda Gusmao, and I'm a solutions manager for Elsevier based in Brazil. My work involves supporting clients with big data analysis, research information management, and to take better decisions based on evidence. Today, I have the honor to interview Professor Aluísio Segurado who runs the institutional research office at the University of São Paulo. Hello professor, could you please introduce yourself?

Aluísio Segurado (02:10)

Hello Fernanda. Thank you very much for this invitation. It's a pleasure to talk to you. , my name is Aluísio Segurado; as you said, I am a Professor of Infectious Diseases at the School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo. And currently, I'm also in charge of the university institutional research office. Our job at the institutional research office is to manage academic data the best we can to provide feedback to the university governance, particularly to the Rector's office and to the academic community as well.

Fernanda Gusmão (02:49)

Thank you, professor. It's a pleasure to have you here today to talk about the excellent performance of University of São Paulo in the last year's impact ranking published by the Times Higher Education, which is an indicator of the university's societal impact. For those of you who may not know the impact ranking, it is an initiative which tries to measure the contribution of societies to United Nations, 17 sustainable development goals, such as poverty eradication, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of inequalities and et cetera. There were institutions from 85 countries evaluated. And I'm happy to say that university of São Paulo was ranked 14th globally, which is a really good result. So, my first question is related to the importance of such rankings, which not only take into consideration a university's scientific production and teaching excellence but also try to measure the social impact of universities. How do you see the emergence of such rankings, and what is the importance of the participation of your university in these initiatives?

Aluísio Segurado (04:00)

Yeah, I see this initiative as very positive, Fernanda. It gives us an opportunity to assess the engagement of higher education institutions in the 2030 agenda of the United Nations. More specifically addressing the sustainable development goals. I believe it casts light onto activities that are not traditionally analyzed in other academic rankings, with a special focus being given to the third mission of the universities. And that is it, their interaction with society, particularly in Latin America. This issue is really relevant, and it's part of the cornerstones that have based our activity since the establishment of the university and that are written explicitly in our bylaws, and that is to contribute for the regional social and economic development. So, in this kind of ranking, we are really going to focus and highlight the role universities are playing in relation to their local society.

Fernanda Gusmão (05:15)

Perfect. And, we know that in three of the 17 evaluated objectives, the university of São Paulo was ranked between the top 10 institutions worldwide: End of poverty was one of the objectives, clean energy, and life on land. Could you please mention some of the activities developed by the university, which led to such a strong position and probably why those objectives were particularly important for the university?

Aluísio Segurado (05:43)

Sure. The first thing I would say in regards to your question is to clarify to those who listen to us, the methodology of the assessment of the ranking, whenever considering interaction with society and communities, the ranking system put light into two different aspects, actions that are undertaken addressing the academic community - and these are internal policies - and on the other hand, actions that were addressing the external community society at large. So for each one of these three SDGs you highlighted in which we had a very good performance, let me just share with you, some of the initiatives that were described and that really drew attention of the evaluators. Concerning end of poverty, I would say that internally, this probably had to do with the affirmative actions that have been recently put in place by the University of São Paulo in parallel to other activities that are being done in other higher education institutions in Brazil. The positive discrimination action aims to enhance diversity within the student body. And that means to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in the study in the student body. And, we also, we did this in two different ways.

Aluísio Segurado (07:21)

Establishing racial quarter and that is assigning some slots for freshmen that belongs to the African Brazilian community or native Brazilian community. And for that, we used self-reported skin color of applicants, but we also use an incentive for students who have their full pre-college education in public schools and here in Latin in America; this is a very important proxy of low social economic status so that students who have been exclusively educated in public schools are most likely coming from the lowest socioeconomic ranks of society. These two actions have been in place for maybe five years already, five to six years, and are already showing what they are here for in terms of increasing diversity in the student body. And in parallel ensuring, those students from underrepresented minorities or low socioeconomic status families would perform as well as their counterparts. The other action that was done for, with this, with this aim for the internal community was to put together a number of initiatives to ensure retainment of those students.

Aluísio Segurado (08:51)

They were ever underrepresented in the student body, but we didn't want just to admit them without giving them the chance to go through the educational process successfully and really completing their degree programs. So a number of financial aid programs, including scholarships, housing support, and subsidized meals, are already in place. And these have really been scored very highly, which helped our performance in that particular SDG. As for the external community end of poverty, actions were exemplified by a number of initiatives that include social project incubators. So we have teams working in incubation offices with the community, trying to solve local problems in the communities that surround our campuses. And one particular project I would like to highlight is the Grace Project. This so-called Grace Project is a project to encourage female students to engage in careers in the computer science and entrepreneurship areas, which are traditionally male-dominated, and therefore having these pre-college girls, high school girls coming to the university and talking about prospects of future careers have really empowered them to apply for a position at the university.

 Aluísio Segurado (10:33)

 Now let's move to another SDG, and that is clean energy. We did, we did perform very well in that SDG as well. And I think that was due to the fact that we are working very hard in sustainability policies on our seven campuses, which are spread throughout the state of Sao Paulo, putting together local monitoring and evaluation projects to assess energy consumption and also implementing a number of initiatives to foster carbon-free transport, for instance, by instance, by, by providing bicycling lanes and free bicycles for students to move around the campus, to their commute system with, with the subway or the local buses that can bring them back home. And for the external community, a lot of effort has been put in one particular project that is being run by our engineering school, Scholar Polytechnical in São Paulo in partnership with local communities that is, trying to develop innovative solutions in energy use, using solar energy and other aspects to really contribute to the spilling over of these initiatives from the campus into the surrounding communities.

 Aluísio Segurado (12:10)

And finally, the third SDG, you mentioned Fernanda was life on earth. For this particular SDGs, we were very, we very carefully described internal initiatives involving our ecological reserves. As I have mentioned before, the University of São Paulo is spread in seven different campuses throughout the state of São Paulo. And in some of these cities, we are very lucky to have a very large surface of campus that includes native forests and a lot of biodiversity. So a number of projects are in place to make sure we can sustain that richness that can be found in those campuses, and for the external community, sustainability is being worked by means of, for instance, projects that are involving lo the local community in solid waste management. And, for instance, transforming solid waste into biofuels. And the university of São Paulo has a long tradition in research, about biofuels. And now these initiatives are trying to translate the knowledge that is being created in the university, in those research projects, by those research groups into actions that can really be translated into benefit for the local communities that surround us.

 Fernanda Gusmão (13:53)

Thank you. These are really interesting initiatives. , now professor part of the indicators that compose the ranking are extracted automatically from Scopus, but the institutions need to provide evidence of the activities developed such as the ones you just mentioned? How did you gather such evidence and how many people were involved from which departments?

Aluísio Segurado (14:16)

This was really a challenge. And we, I can tell you that we prepared ourselves to be able to provide robust data during the previous year to the data collection process. So, so we contacted different faculties, academic staff, and administrators in order to tell them and to share with them the importance of participating in this kind of ranking, the novelty that was involved in this particular assessment, and trying to raise their awareness of the possibility of showcasing different initiatives that were already in place at the university. I think this was an excellent opportunity for us to help us deepen our self-knowledge about the whole, the institution itself. We work in a very large institution with more than 60,000 undergraduate students and 30,000 graduate students with about 6,000 to 7,000 professors. And of course, within the university, we still don't know very well what is going on in this large institution.

 So raising awareness about the possibility of showcasing all these initiatives was really very rewarding. We had a lot of groups involved; I would say certainly more than 50 different people were involved. We distributed data collection forms that were addressing the different, sectors of the administration and the different faculties and research institutes. And, at first, we classified the SDGs according to our expectation of which SDGs each one of those sectors and schools will, would more likely be involved in. But what was really surprising is that we got in return many manifestations of, of people, of actors in the process that were willing to share more information or to share information about other SDGs they hadn't been originally asked about. So that meant that we, in fact, did not really know to what extent the academic community was involved in the United Nations 2030 agenda. And this was an excellent opportunity for us to put together a baseline data set that we, of course, are going to use in the following years, updating that information and making this database even more accurate.

 Fernanda Gusmão (17:04)

This is a really impressive exercise. And as a result of the ranking, were there any internal policies that the university decided to review or reinforce?

Aluísio Segurado  (17:15)

Yes, this was a positive, let's say, side effect. In fact, I think we really highlighted the commitment of the academic community with the SDG agenda, and this made it very clear for the academic community that we needed to improve our data collection process. At first, we were asking for information providing spreadsheets to be filled out, but in the process, we decided to have a digital database put together. So, this is still under development. We, we have a task force that has this particular goal set, and we expect to have, before the beginning of the next semester, this digital database already running that will be able to provide automatically all the different indicators we need to showcase. We also have two other very important initiatives that were by-products of our participation in the ranking, and these were funding opportunities with the university budgets that were SDG related, one addressing the possibility of providing seed money for research groups that would be involved in interdisciplinary research projects that would relate to one of the 17 SDGs and the other, call for funds was for the community to, apply with extension projects that could also receive some seed money.

 So this is, as I say, a by-product of our involvement in the process with the idea that it's not only important to showcase what is in place, what is already being implemented, but also try to broaden our action in that regard with, we also have added an SDG component to our website, flagging to our institutional research office website. And we are developing a system in which we are going to flag all the different initiatives, relating them to the particular SDGs they address.

 Fernanda Gusmão (19:44)

Now, professor, there is a common discussion about ranking versus rating. Some people advocate that it would be better to have a rating system, which classifies institutions in bands like band A, B or C rather than a ranking. Do you believe a rating system could be more fair and more useful to universities?

Aluísio Segurado (20:10)

Yeah, this is a very interesting discussion. Once one, I say drawback of the ranking system is that the community, in general, does not really understand what those positions really mean and what the mobility we usually see from one year to the other a long time, really means, so sometimes we see Ms. Misinterpretations of ranking results, just, saying that one particular university did very well or did very badly in that particular year without really understanding that just going down one or two positions doesn't mean anything. So this is, this is a backlash of the rate of the ranking system and therefore a rating system could also be considered as, as a good alternative. In fact, I would say Fernanda that many of the traditional rankings, they also have a rating process embedded in the evaluation system because they rank, let's say, the first 100 or 200 positions.

 And from that point on, they usually rate in bands in 50 institution bands from 200 to 250 and so forth, so this is already there, but not, but, but the rating system with, with fixed positions is still there. I think that, one issue we should discuss in this regard, it is the possibility of moving towards a more multidimensional approach. Some novel initiatives have already been launched in some rankings that do not rank the institutions in positions or bands, but rather provides wrap Rater graphs in which they can show it in different dimensions, this, the strengths and the opportunities for improvement within each university, just by seeing those Rater graphs, one institution can really be able to make a comparative analysis in terms of benchmarking, to search for strategic partnerships with similar institutions, with institutions that have, let's say, the similar strengths, or even with complimentary institutions, institutions that might be really different from the one we work at, but whose particular strengths are complementary to ours. And so that a synergistic partnership could be built. So I think having this more multidimensional approach could also be beneficial for institutions to really define strategic partnerships with other academic institutions.

 Fernanda Gusmão (23:26)

This is a very interesting suggestion. I quite like that. , we saw professor that in addition to University of São Paulo, there were another 29 Brazilian universities listed in the ranking. What advice would you give to universities that wish to participate in such rankings or they want to improve their position?

Aluísio Segurado (23:49)

Yes. This is also a very interesting aspect you're raising, and we have been working a lot with that since the results of the ranking were, were shared with the academic community globally. We have been contacted by a number of Brazilian institutions who didn't even take part in the ranking in that year, 2019, and that were willing to join the ranking in the following year. So we discussed a lot what our learning process was and shared with them some of the difficulties we had so that they would maybe overcome those more easily, would not have to face them from scratch, and we also shared the idea for the needs to foster the data collection process. I think this is a particular important issue. We were not prepared. We weren't, we would have not have been prepared to participate last year if we had not gone through that preparation step.

 And so we try to share with the other institutions that they should get prepared first. And the other aspect is that I think it's not just a matter of participating in the ranking process. I think, the ranking results are in which, in our case, were very rewarding; they also gave us a chance to make a reflection of what those results really meant. So we think, one important part of the ranking results is that they give us the opportunity to feed the institution back on initiatives that should be implemented or strengthened because of the real impact they make. So I think it's, it's, it's crucial for us to really share this experience with other Brazilian institutions. If more Brazilian institutions take part in the ranking, I think the whole Brazilian higher academic institution will benefit as a whole. And I, I, I truly believe we will have more institutions participating this year; as you probably know, the data collection process is already over, so we are looking forward to receiving the results and really checking whether we had a widening of the Brazilian participation in the Times Higher Education impact ranking this year.

 Fernanda Gusmão (26:34)

Yeah. I'm eager to see that as well. And talking about reflection, changing a little bit, the focus of our conversation, I wanted to draw attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and how would show the importance of science to society and highlighted the role of universities in science development. Do you believe that society's perceptions of the role of universities will change after the pandemic? And if so, how?

Aluísio Segurado (27:04)

Yes. This, this is very important for us as, as you know, very well Fernanda. We are under a social-political environment currently in Brazil that is not very favorable for science and higher education that has, that has been, a movement that involved media and government officers that really questioned the importance, the important role of higher education institutions and scientific initiatives, in general. And it, and again, this was also related to the response we tried to build against the pandemic. But I, I have no doubt that we can showcase our importance very clearly in this very tragic event of the pandemic. We certainly came out with very innovative solutions for this public health emergency. Having research initiatives, being funded by the university itself, trying to get research funds from private, partners in large amounts to develop emergency solutions for a problem that had really hit us very hard.

Aluísio Segurado (28:36)

So I can tell you, in a very short period of time, we were able to put together over 200 research teams at USP that were working together in an interdisciplinary fashion that had never been seen before in that extent, to try to come out with innovative solutions that ended up with ventilators that were built, with support of health investigators and in clinical engineers, of positioning cushions for those patients with severe respiratory failure that have to be put in, in a proper position to improve their physiological conditions so that they can keep breathing, even though they are, have been severely affected by this respiratory viral infection, that development of diagnostic tests at a time when diagnostic tests for COVID-19 were scarce in the country, we were able to put together 19 research laboratories in a network that provided together Covid diagnosis for the health system, for our unified health system.

 Apart from that, I cannot forget to talk about the vaccine trials that were undertaken and developed in the university. And all the molecular epidemiological studies with the new Coronavirus that involved researchers from the university. So I believe, we did, we really did very well in that regard. So we came out, even when the government seemed not to be responding as we had expected, we came out and very rapidly really put all our efforts into trying to come with those solutions, and we interacted with the government of the state of São Paulo, for instance, we were called upon to provide emergency care to patients with severe COVID-19. What did we do? We very rapidly transformed our academic health center here. Hospital dos clinica in Sao Paulo, in a COVID designated hospital that's quickly provided from January to March, provided over 300 intensive care unit beds and 500 ward beds exclusively for patients with COVID-19. With this unprecedented response to this high burden of care that we had,

Aluísio Segurado (31:26)

I think we really played a pivotal role in providing care in this emergency situation, contributing to avoid the collapse of our public healthcare system in a megacity like São Paulo. So this was something that really showed, how the potential we have to be rapidly mobilized. And it, it, it was a counter, a counter-argument for those who say that the universities are very rigid in their traditions and they have a low room for adaptability and flexibility. I think we really showed this is not true. We adapted ourselves, we were flexible, and we gained a lot of visibility from the society, not only in the country but also abroad. The only thing I cannot be sure of is to what extent this really will translate into a more sustained financial support from the government in the long run. We have been able to do a lot. We received a lot of governmental support. We were, we showed, we are able to build public, private partnerships, and we received a lot of a significant amount of donations. Still, I cannot really tell you, Fernanda, if this is going to be sustained as a real effect, a real outcome of our deep involvement in this emergency.

 Fernanda Gusmão (33:06)

Oh, it's really impressive and inspiring to hear about all the initiatives that you and university has developed during the pandemic. And I really hope it does translate into sustainable financial support so they can keep going and much more can be, can be done. Now back to the ranking, can we expect University of São Paulo to be among the top 10 institutions in this year's edition of the impact ranking?

Aluísio Segurado (33:32)

Fernanda, we would really be very happy to see that we are heartily motivated by our experience in the first year. We got prepared to do even better in the second year. We, our rector was asked to share this experience in international forums. So we really expect to do at least as well, but, if possible, even better this time. We are really motivated, and we believe this is important for our future. It's crucial for us to show the Brazilian society that the university of São Paulo and its fellow higher education institutions are important players in the Brazilian society for development, for economic development, social development, and the possibility of adding up to this necessary rapid responsiveness that is required when we have these emergencies in the future. So I really, I would be very gratified to see if we have a, at least a similar performance or even a better outcome this time.

 Fernanda Gusmão

Thank you very much, professor. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I look forward to seeing the university of São Paulo's position in the upcoming ranking.

Aluísio Segurado 

Thank you very much, Fernanda, it was our pleasure to share this experience, and we hope to work in collaboration with other Brazilian institutions and Latin American partners in order to build a network of universities that are really giving the necessary relevance to the third mission of our institutions and addressing our close interaction with the nearby society.

 Giacomo Mancini (33:39)

It's clear that for Professor Aluísio and the University of São Paulo, ensuring that research contributes to society is more than just a goal – it is a mission. 


For the university, this work has two major strands – their on-campus activities and the initiatives they run for – and with – the community to create a more equitable, sustainable Brazil.


It's inspiring to hear that the data collection work for the THE Impact Rankings has already sparked new sustainability initiatives at the institution. 


Equally inspiring is the university's desire to help other institutions in Brazil map their societal impact. The University of São Paulo has openly shared lessons learned during the data collection process and ideas for improvements. For example, the story Professor Aluísio shares relating to the pandemic shows the university's passion to 'give back' to the people of Brazil.


We want to thank both Professor Aluísio and Fernanda for sharing the University of Sao Paolo's story with us on Research 2030.  If you have questions or comments to share with us about this episode, or the podcast in general, we would love to hear them! Send us an email at  


Interested in learning more about the United Nations SDGs or Professor Aluísio and the University of Sao Paolo? Our show notes share more information and links to explore.  


Again, I'm Giacomo Mancini and thank you for listening to this episode of Research 2030.  Oh, and don't forget to sign up to Research 2030 on your favorite podcast provider – that way, you'll be the first to hear about new episodes.