Number of the week

The state of scientific research in Brazil

Brazil is hemorrhaging money for scientific research at the worst possible moment

funds for scientific research in Brazil
Scientists in Rio de Janeiro research how the coronavirus acts in the human nervous system. Photo: Alessandro Dahan/Shutterstock

Welcome to “Number of the Week,” where we choose a single figure that helps understand what is going on in Brazil. This week’s number details how Brazil is hemorrhaging money for scientific research at the worst possible moment.

$98mn
to fund scientific research

In its efforts to approve the 2021 budget, while avoiding a breach of Brazil’s budgetary laws, the Jair Bolsonaro administration slashed investment across multiple areas, from the census to institutions responsible for fostering scientific research. In its latest move, the government blocked over 90 percent of funds allocated to the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FNDCT).

Why it matters. The FNDCT is Brazil’s main instrument for fostering scientific research. The government’s decision — which goes against moves by Congress to prevent such cuts — leaves just BRL 534 million (USD 98 million) of unblocked funds. In comparison, the U.S. allocates over USD 130 billion yearly to research and innovation, over 1,300 times more than Brazil will in 2021.

Deep cuts. The cuts to the FNDCT are even more worrying when placed in a wider context. The 2021 budget will see a 29-percent decrease in funds allocated to the Science and Technology Ministry. And the budget for research grants has fallen 12 percent to just BRL 918 million.

  • Moreover, only BRL 362 million are guaranteed — the rest must come through congressional authorizations, as the funding would exceed the federal spending cap. This means that only 13 percent of all research projects meeting the criteria for financial aid will actually receive their entitlements.

Bad timing. There is never a good moment to cut a country’s research budget down to bare bones. But to do so amid a deadly pandemic that has sparked the worst crisis in a century is particularly bad timing.

  • Countries that are better able to navigate the crisis are, unsurprisingly, those that invest more in new technology and scientific knowledge production.
  • “It is necessary and possible to develop domestic technologies that can help mitigate the effects of diseases on people,” wrote researchers Fernanda De Negri and Priscila Koeller in a technical note for the Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea). “For this to happen, however, it is essential to establish priorities, based on the best scientific knowledge available, as well as the expansion of investment in research.”

To discuss the state of Brazilian science, we spoke with Tatiana Vargas-Maia, a history professor at La Salle University in southern Brazil and founder of Mulheres Também Sabem (Women Also Know), an initiative to promote the work of female scientists in Brazil.

Question.What is the state of research funding in Brazil? Which areas are most in need?

Answer.Research funding in Brazil is in a very troubling situation, though this is not exactly a new thing. However, the scenario now, in 2021, is especially dire. In addition to reducing the number of grants, there is a possibility that even those which were approved will not receive the funds to which they are entitled. This precarious funding situation is a snapshot of the poor conditions under which research is carried out in Brazil. The last hike in grant payments came in 2013 and, if we take into account the inflation rate over the past 8 years, researchers have actually lost purchasing power.

Q.How could Brazil attract more private funding for national research?

A.Proponents of private funding for science generally point to the U.S or Europe as examples, to suggest that Brazil should look for alternative sources of funds. This notion, however, ignores that, in both cases, the lion's share of investment still comes from public entities (around 42 percent in the U.S in 2020, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, and 77 percent in Europe, according to a 2019 report by the University of São Paulo). Research and scientific development are long-term projects that effectively need public policies linked to human and social development — ones that are sometimes incompatible with short-term private sector objectives. This doesn’t mean that we can’t seek partnerships with private companies, but they are not a source that can replace public investment.

Q.Brazil is suffering from brain drain, with some of its most notable researchers fleeing the country in search of better working conditions. Which areas are worst affected by this process?

A.It seems to me that this problem affects all areas. However, researchers in the physical and biological sciences, due to their specific characteristics, are more in demand in research centers abroad, and therefore these areas suffer more brain drain.