Visibility and popular recognition
Despite the little federal funding for research that marked the first five years of the 1990s, this decade witnessed two major accomplishments.
The first was the consolidation of the opening of Coppe to the economic and social demands, a subject that became ever more present in the theses produced. These, in turn, provided academic support to the growing involvement of the institution in discussions of controversial social topics – which often found government officials and technicians on the opposite side of the discussion.
The subjects ranged from specific, limited issues to the privatization strategy put in place by the federal government and the risks in electric power generation and transmission, which culminated in the national "blackout" due to failures in energy planning. Coppe gained visibility outside the academic circles. It became better known nationally and recognized in the society.
At the same time, Coppe was gaining a laboratory infrastructure compatible with the size of its operations. In 1996, it opened the I-2000, the largest complex in Latin America laboratories in engineering. With the support of Petrobras, 82 laboratories were installed in 10,000 square meters (approx. 107,000 square feet) of built area. That established a new kind of cooperation with companies: the joint construction of laboratories.
In the second half of the decade, finally new official mechanisms to support research were implemented such as the National Program of Excellence (Pronex) and the sector funds formed with mandatory contributions from the oil and telecommunications companies. Prepared to seize new opportunities, directors and professors of Coppe quickly presented a collection of projects and replaced the network of laboratories set up in the previous 30 years with modern, well-equipped facilities.
Thus Coppe was preparing to enter the 21st century.
The role of Coppetec
Over the hardest years of dim federal funding, Coppetec, an organ created in 1970 to administer the provision of services to companies and public bodies, has become an important source of revenue, thanks mainly to contracts with Petrobras, which had gained momentum since 1977. In the late 1980s, Coppetec was providing 25% of Coppe’s budget. It was at that moment that the federal government, desperate to fatten the Union’s budget, turned its eyes to all sources of resources in the public administration which did not passed by Treasury controls.
Two federal audits confirmed the probity and honesty in Coppetec’s activities, but demanded changes in administrative procedures, which in practice meant taking from Coppe the freedom to apply the resources received through Coppetec. The entire budget would be fixed.
The solution, arrived at in 1993, was to convert Coppetec into a foundation. The Coppetec Foundation manages the contracts dealing with services; consequently, it regulates the allocation of the professors’ time and distributes the proceeds, following clear and austere standards. In 2011, the Foundation had 12,700 contracts signed. Most of them helped finance the installation of the laboratory network that spread across campus in the 1990s and 2000s.
The Interdisciplinary Energy Area – officially established in 1979 by the Systems, Nuclear and Production engineering departments - grew to gain autonomy. In 1992, the Energy Planning department (PPE) became Coppe’s twelfth, and the country's first, graduate course in that area. With a strong environmental approach, the PPE has stimulated the emergence of projects that seek answers to the great challenges of the contemporary world: reconciling the growing demand for energy with the need to protect the environment.
The intensive use of computing led to the purchase in 1995 of a Cray, Coppe’s first supercomputer. The equipment has facilitated the conduct of research in other units of UFRJ and several large academic institutions in Brazil such as Brazilian Center for Physics Research (CBPF); Aerospace Technical Centre (CTA); University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).
Another example is the Health Systems Engineering Area from the Biomedical Engineering department. This Area is responsible for the diagnosis and finding solutions aiming to increase the efficiency of the management of public and private health systems, which generally struggle with the pressure to keep up with the continuous advancement of medical technology and the corresponding high costs. In cooperation with local health authorities, the Biomedical Engineering department contributes to the increase of applications of advanced management techniques in the industry.
The Brazilian institutions that develop technology locally wanted to see the materialization of their work without so much difficulty. Relatively few Brazilian technologies arrived at the production stage and to the consumption market.
Coppe’s answer was to create in 1994 its Incubator of Technology-Based Companies, a novelty in Brazil at the time. As environments that stimulate creation and make possible the development of new businesses, the incubators house the new business for a limited period of time, ensuring it receives the necessary infrastructure and assistance until it reaches maturity to survive on its own on the market.
The incubator receives new ventures that are born in research groups from various areas of the UFRJ, mostly from Coppe. At the end of 2000, 50 companies had already graduated, that is, were on the market.
The firm determination to use academic knowledge to influence the country's agenda and the policies and actions of the different spheres of government has gained momentum in Coppe in the 1990s.
In the second half of the decade, based on studies of the Energy Planning department, the institution warned publicly: Brazil was heading to a serious crisis in the supply of electricity because the strategy of privatization in the sector neglected planning the expansion of hydroelectric plants. The federal government challenged the data and the analysis Coppe provided; the discussion went on for a long time and had some heated moments. The facts turned out proving the validity of the evaluation made by the researchers from Coppe. In 2001, the federal government had to impose rationing on electricity for the whole population, and established the penalty of temporary shutdown for residences or companies that did not comply with the cuts.
More specific issues, but also relevant to the population, generated heated debates with governments. Already in the mid-1980s, Coppe’s professors warned that the state government was neglecting the maintenance of bridges in Rio de Janeiro, which were threatened by the corrosion of the metal hardware.
In 1988, the problem was detected in the bridge of Joá, an important traffic outlet between Rio’s Southern Zone and the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. The urgent repair was made in 1991, only after judicial intervention –but did not entirely solve problem.
One initiative of 1996, however, had a longer duration. On February 13 of that year, a violent storm in the city of Rio de Janeiro killed one hundred people and displaced over 6,000. Coppe held a seminar entitled “Prevention and Control of Storm Effects in Rio de Janeiro.” The event was a partnership with the National Network of Social Mobilization - COEP, established in 1993 by the sociologist Herbert de Souza, the Betinho. It was a rare experience at the time. It mobilized government technicians, scientists, politicians and NGO activists to discuss together a burning issue for the society. It resulted in technical recommendations.
The result was a report with assessments and suggestions of solutions to the main problems. Published in the form of a book with the title “Rio Storms,” the work was widely published by the Office of Communications, which was created in Coppe in 1995, and distributed to government officials, government agencies and other institutions.
Several suggestions in the publication were put in place, such as the creation of a weather warning system, the Rio Alert; the creation of forms of articulation of the various local, state and federal agencies; the use of the concept of river basin as the unit for assessment and intervention; the intensification of studies for solutions and actions of risk prevention on slopes; the implementation of environmental education projects in the communities.
Over the following years, Coppe's departments have expanded the knowledge on the phenomena associated with rains and their effects on cities - knowledge that would prove vital, given the increasing frequency and intensity of storms.
Many other studies and technologies have been developed to address important issues for the country. Among dozens of examples, stand out projects to improve mobility in the cities; clean up rivers; more efficient generation and use of energy; reducing environmental impacts in Brazilian urban areas, estuaries and other ecosystems; and make more effective and accessible medical treatments to the population.