As science stalls in Brazil, the economy shows signs of the strain

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Brazil has systematically cut funding for science

While many of Rio de Janeiro’s samba schools have chosen direct attacks on politicians in this year’s carnival, one school has picked a topic whose tensions simmer beneath the surface. Unidos da Vila Isabel’s entry, sponsored by Nissan, saw elaborate tributes to inventors like Albert Einstein, Santos Dumont, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison sashay the length of the avenue late on Sunday night.

But the samba school’s theme touches on a growing disquiet far from the light-hearted fun that Carnival normally provides. Cuts to government investments in scientific research have left the academic community reeling, while others fear that this could have a knock-on effect on Brazil’s economy.

Federal budgets allow just 1 percent of the country’s GDP for science, compared to South Korea’s 4 percent and the European Union’s target of 3 percent. In Brazil’s case, previous economic growth meant that science saw a 700 percent growth over two decades, but its decision to cut funding as it emerges from recession could harm its growth.

China, by contrast, invested heavily in science and research during its recession, propelling innovation and economic growth. But the ramifications of Brazil’s decision may already be showing: the Global Innovation Index, published in December 2017, showed that innovation in Brazil has remained stagnant, prompting concerns about the country’s capacity to grow economically.

As funding falls, scientists seek opportunities abroad

Brazil’s President Michel Temer slashed federal science funding by 44 percent in March 2017, while the 2018 budget proposal for the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC) contained additional cuts of 16 percent. Divided between 22 federal laboratories and research institutes, plus 73 national institutions and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Funding Authority for Studies and Projects, the amount – 2.7bn BRL – would last only until August 2018.

Other programs have been reduced to a bare minimum. In 2011, at the height of Brazil’s boom, the federal government began offering scholarships to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics under its flagship Science Without Borders program. But the recession hit the initiative hard: funding was reduced by 40 percent in 2015, and the Ministry of Education slashed the number of places available again in 2017.

Prestigious federal universities, renowned as the country’s finest for their knowledge and expertise, have been feeling the combined effects of the financial crisis and individual state debts. In addition to CNPq’s difficulties, state research institutions in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, FAPERJ and FAPESP, are both struggling.

“My laboratory cannot last another year in the current situation,” Dr. Fernanda de Felice Ferreira, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Rio de Janeiro’s federal university, told UOL. “We are in absolute poverty. Several of these students are going out to do experiments abroad because we do not have research material in Brazil.”

“Scientific studies for biology and medicine are all very expensive. Many scientists have continued with their research by finding other resources, but there comes a time when that runs out,” Maurício Canêdo, a professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas’s economics school, told The Brazilian Report.

Funding for research and postgraduate studies has been drastically reduced, and professor resignations at state universities are rising, as scientists abandon their fields for positions in private universities or corporations. A collection of Brazilian Nobel laureates and scientific societies have issued warnings to the Temer administration regarding the future of the country, as Brazil’s contributions to CERN wobble.

“We’ve seen very important Brazilian scientists, who were at public universities, transferring to foreign universities in Europe or the US,” said Canêdo. “Besides hitting Brazil today, it will continue to hurt Brazil in the long term, because these people will no longer be in Brazil to train new scientists.”

One of the most emblematic cases of this exodus was that of Suzana Herculano-Houzel, one of the most internationally-recognized Brazilian scientists. In 2016, she found herself frustrated by the precarious work conditions at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and decided to take a position at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee. With numerous acclaimed studies on her CV, Herculano-Houzel complained of the hurdles she faced to perform her job in Brazil, including extensive bureaucracy to import material and unfulfilled promises of funding. “I’d reached my limit,” she wrote in an article explaining her decision.

suzana herculano houzel

Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Knock-on economic impact

Canêdo says that fleeing researchers and current innovation in Brazil, which has been relatively stagnant since 2014, is likely to have a knock-on effect on the economy. “This tends to affect the speed at which Brazil can turn a profit,” he explained. “It’s something that takes a little while to manifest, but there will certainly be an impact on people’s lives and on cities’ prosperities.”

Rafael Escalona Reynoso, of the Global Innovation Index (GII) says that Brazil has seen slight improvement, but without better data capture around innovation, it remains hard to predict how the economy will be affected in the near future. A part of the problem, Reynoso says, is capturing the data in the first place.

“We don’t have the information for Brazil. Something key for policymakers is to find is the best tools to approach this issue, what’s happening … and why the numbers are performing in such a way,” he told The Brazilian Report by phone. “But if Brazil doesn’t have the data, either they’re not reporting, or there really is no clear information.”

But a secondary factor, in addition to inefficient data capture methods, could be affecting Brazil’s innovation. Policies introduced in recent years have made it even more difficult for foreign businesses to act in Brazil, reducing foreign investments and competition.

“To improve input and innovation results, the macro environment must be conducive to innovation or at least not inhibitory,” said Gianna Sagazio, national superintendent at the National Confederation of Industry (CNI), one of the GII’s knowledge partners, in an email to The Brazilian Report.

For Sagazio, however, solutions are easily within Brazil’s grasp. “The financing system needs to be strengthened, cooperation between companies and universities must be increased and the innovation agenda should be a priority for the country to become competitive with the world’s major economies,” she wrote. “Much has been done, but we need to move further. It is necessary to step up the pace of innovation and look beyond the horizon.”

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About the author

Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.