Brazil has systematically cut funding for science

It’s true that science and research have never been properly funded in Brazil. But 2018 proved to be one of the worst years in recorded history. Public spending has been suffering from cuts since 2014, when Dilma Rousseff was still president. The budget of the Federal Science Ministry has shrunk by more than 50 percent in the last 5 years, and an additional 10 percent cut is expected for 2019, despite numerous appeals by scientists to legislators in Brasília. 

This last year, the losses became even more concrete: When important pieces of Brazilian science and history were destroyed by a fire at the National Museum which raised the building to the ground. A symbol of how the government and society treat knowledge. The museum was gravely underfunded and lacked basic fire equipment. The future under the next administration looks no better. Jair Bolsonaro has already said he plans to cut spending on research. 

It wasn’t all bad news (for science) in 2018.  Brazil opened the most advanced particle accelerator in the world, called Sirius. And Rio de Janeiro passed policy to eliminate plastic straws in an attempt to diminish the plastic pollution.

A fire at the National Museum destroys Brazil’s scientific patrimony

A blaze engulfed the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on September 2nd, destroying most of its interior, causing an incalculable loss to science and culture for both Brazil and the rest of the world. The museum’s archive of over 2 million pieces included some of the most important anthropological and archaeological findings in Latin America.

The most emblematic artifact lost in the blaze was the oldest human fossil ever found in Latin America: the skull of a woman who lived approximately 11,500 years ago, who was affectionately named Luzia. The fossilized cranium was found in 1975, in a cave close to the city of Belo Horizonte, and was the centerpiece of the National Museum’s fossil collection, which was regarded as the largest in Latin America.

Sirius, the world’s most advanced synchrotron

In November Brazil introduced the world to Sirius, a particle accelerator, the country’s biggest and most complex scientific structure to date. Sirius is a synchrotron, a particular kind of accelerator which moves particles around a fixed, closed-loop pattern. Synchrotrons can serve various purposes in the scientific and industrial fields, ranging from petroleum extraction, research in brain formation, determining the composition of chemicals and geological materials, as well as aiding certain treatments of cancer.

At a cost of BRL 1.8 billion, Sirius is by far the most ambitious scientific project in Brazil, and, astonishingly, it has survived the economic crisis. For the time being, it is the world’s most advanced synchrotron. Other countries with active synchrotrons include the United States, Japan, Switzerland, Russia, South Korea, Iran, Jordan, China, France, and Germany.

Brazil pulls out of the COP 25

On November 27th, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had given up on competing to be the host of COP 25, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference, to be held in November 2019. This was allegedly due to lack of funds and the political transition the country is going through. Later, Bolsonaro admitted he was responsible for the action. This is just one example of Bolsonaro’s team putting his policies into action.

Future members of his cabinet have denied the existence of Global Warming and are closely linked to Agribusiness. The President himself said he plans to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement.

Rio de Janeiro bans plastic straws

Rio’s City Council approved a bill that forbids bars and restaurants from using plastic straws. The legislation was passed on July 16 and states that anyone who gets caught disrespecting the new rules will receive a fine of BRL 3,000. Regular straws must be replaced for ones made of sustainable material, such as bio-paper. Rio is the first state capital in Brazil to create such legislation.

The city also approved a law that bans all petroleum-based plastic bags from commercial establishments. Businesses have up to 18 months to adapt and to offer reusable bags made with at least 51% renewable materials.

São Paulo’s air improves during truckers strike

The 10-day truckers’ strike that drove Brazil into chaos had a positive side effect: reduced levels of pollution in Brazil’s biggest city. Researchers at the University of São Paulo measured air quality levels in Latin America’s largest metropolis and found out the strike cut pollution levels in São Paulo’s city center by half. Paulo Saldiva, leading the research said “This is a rare episode”  and he would study its consequences for public health. “Maybe this evidence will motivate new public policies in the transportation sector,” he said, presenting his findings to the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

Budget cuts threaten the future of Brazilian science

At the beginning of the year, President Michel Temer, decided to reduce spending on science and research. The ministry’s budget was cut from BRL 4.8 billion in 2017 to BRL 1.4 billion in 2018. The Coordination of Improvement of Higher Level Personnel (Capes) announced that 198,000 scholarships would be cut due to lack of funds. The impossibility of continuing research has led to a phenomenon called brain drain. Scholars are leaving Brazil for other countries, in order to continue working.

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SocietyDec 31, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.