In Brazil, researchers struggle to fend off deepening budget cuts

Publicado em 26/10/2017
Science, 20/10/2017



With time and money running out, Brazilian scientists are turning up the pressure on the federal government to avoid a total collapse of the national science and technology funding system before the end of the year.

Researchers last week delivered a petition with more than 82,000 signatures to congressional leaders in Brasília, demanding the reversal of deep budget cuts that have left research institutions struggling to pay even basic water and electricity bills. The petition delivery was part of a series of meetings and protests held across Brazil.

As a result of Brazil’s mounting economic woes, federal funding for science and technology is now at its lowest level in modern history, dropping by more than half over the past 5 years. The science ministry kicked off this year with a slim $1.8 billion budget, but President Michel Temer’s administration later reduced that by 44%, imposing a spending cap of just over $1 billion.

That money ran out last month. In an emergency move, in the first week of October the federal government allowed some additional spending, including a fresh $150 million allowance for the science ministry. But ministry officials say that is less than a quarter of what is needed to meet spending commitments through the end of the year. Requests for funding proposals that make up the bread and butter of Brazilian science have been canceled, research grants aren’t being paid on time (or are only partially paid), and thousands of scholarships are at risk.

The “drastic reduction” in science funding will have “grave consequences” for the social and economic development of Brazil, warned a recent letter to lawmakers signed by more than150 scientific organizations. “The situation is dramatic,” says Ildeu Moreira, president of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science in São Paulo. “And is likely to get worse in 2018.”

The government’s initial proposal calls for reducing the science ministry’s spending by an additional 15% in the 2018 budget, which Brazil’s legislature is scheduled to set by year’s end. If that cut is approved, it would mean the “dismantling of everything that was accomplished through dozens of years of investment” in science and technology, fears Augusto Gadelha, director of the National Laboratory for Scientific Computing (LNCC), in Petrópolis, Brazil. He is not optimistic about heading off the cuts.

LNCC operates the largest supercomputer in Latin America, serving as a national facility for research projects that range from Zika virus genomics to climate change modeling. It got an additional $500,000 allowance to get through this year—just enough to keep the computer running, Gadelha says, but only half of what the center needed for its entire operation. Other research facilities face similar situations.

Brazil’s new synchrotron light source—the Sirius project in Campinas—needs an additional $70 million this year to stay on schedule for its first beam run in June 2018. “We are taking it month by month. Let’s see what happens in November,” says the project’s director, Antônio José Roque da Silva.

Fears for the future

Some researchers fear the funding crisis threatens the nation’s next generation of scientists. “It’s becoming impossible to work in Brazil, especially for young scientists,” says plant biologist Marcos Buckeridge, a professor at the University of São Paulo and president of the São Paulo State Academy of Sciences.

Last month, 23 Nobel laureates wrote to Temer, warning him that funding cuts will cause “a brain drain affecting the best young scientists.” Buckeridge says “that’s happening already,” noting that one of his brightest students went to the United States in 2015 for a postdoc and doesn’t plan to come back. Other researchers have similar stories.

The ministry of science and technology said in a press statement that the additional money it received this month will be used primarily for the payment of scholarships supporting graduate students at public universities, who make up the bulk of Brazil’s scientific workforce. The ministry also said it hopes to unlock additional funds for research before the end of the year. The 2018 research budget, it said, is still under negotiation.