Budget cap would stifle Brazilian science, critics say

Publicado em 19/10/2016
Sciencemag em 18 de outubro de 2016



Brazil’s economy is in free fall, and the new government has a controversial remedy: a constitutional amendment that would cap public spending for the next 20 years. The proposal, known as PEC 241, would prohibit all three branches of Brazil’s government to raise yearly expenditures above the inflation rate, essentially freezing spending at current levels for 2 decades. The bill, now making its way through Congress, would put Brazilian science in a budgetary straightjacket, observers say.

“It will be a disaster,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro. Gaining passage of the amendment bill before the end of this year is the top priority of Brazilian President Michel Temer, who took office on 31 August after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of the bill on 11 October; according to procedure, the chamber must take a second vote—expected to happen early next week—followed by two votes in the Senate.

The 2016 federal budget for science, technology, and innovation, approximately $1.5 billion, is the lowest in 10 years when corrected for inflation. (Inflation is expected to run at about 7.2% this year.) Agencies have been reducing scholarships and grants, both in number and award amounts. Earlier this year, for example, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (NCSTD), the government’s main science funding agency, announced that it would not offer new scholarships for graduate study or research abroad. The council and the Brazilian Innovation Agency have slashed funding for national programs and are delaying payments on research grants. The situation is so dire that federal research institutes are struggling to pay electricity bills. “There is no way we can survive another 20 years like this,” says Davidovich, who is also a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Blame for the parlous state of Brazilian science lies squarely with the previous administration, asserts science minister Gilberto Kassab. During Rousseff’s tenure, the science budget shrank, and she caught flak for taking a chunk of money out of the National Scientific and Technological Development Fund to pay for her administration’s flagship Science without Borders program, which since 2011 has sent more than 100,000 students, mostly undergrads, to study abroad. Scientists’ concerns about federal research financing are “legitimate,” Kassab says. The PEC ceiling will apply to the entire federal budget, not to specific ministries, he notes—so it will be possible to shift funds around, if necessary.

“That means, in order to grow the budget for science, they will have to take money away from some other area, like health, education, or agriculture. It’s absurd,” says Glaucius Oliva, a biophysicist at the University of São Paulo in São Paulo and former president of the NCSTD. Science has always been “the weakest link” in the chain of Brazilian politics, he says. “We will have to get creative to secure funding from other sources, independent of the federal treasury. Otherwise, we are going to stall.”

“Smart countries increase funding for science, technology, and innovation to get out of a crisis,” says Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in São Paulo. “We are doing the opposite.”