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Investing in scientists as individuals is the way to halt the pandemic, says NGO

. Apr 22, 2020
scientists brazil covid-19 Fiocruz lab technician. Photo: Joa Souza/Shutterstock

Roughly one year ago, Brazilian scientists were faced with severe budget constraints, while public institutions leading the country’s most promising research projects were shockingly dismissed as dens of “shenanigans” by the Education Minister himself.

With Covid-19 sweeping the world off its feet, investments have been pouring in for equipment and infrastructure, in a desperate attempt to fight the pandemic. But governments and the private sector must not forget that investment in scientists and health professionals as individuals should be longstanding, as they are also the best hope to stop the pandemic and to create new technologies. This is the view of Marcia Fournier, a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and board member of Dimensions Sciences, a non-profit organization that works to foster minorities’ inclusion in scientific environments in the U.S. 

In an interview with The Brazilian Report, Dr. Fournier debated the consequences of the pandemic for international science — from the need for long-term investment plans to the perils of misinformation and how unprecedented cooperation may affect research in Brazil and elsewhere.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

</p> <p><strong>The education budget in Brazil suffered a number of budget freezes in 2019, intensifying what was an ongoing process. Do you believe that the need to fight the pandemic may reserve or at least improve this situation?</strong>&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>People are mobilizing to support science. We have initiatives from the government and, more recently, from the private sector as well, which is amazing because they are investing in infrastructure for health and technology. But I believe this must be a long-term investment, there has to be continuity.</p><p>Also, these funds are for Covid-19 — which is great because we need that now — but many of the technologies that we are benefiting from came from other areas, from projects that were not related to Covid-19. We have many companies providing new tests for the coronavirus, but this investment was made decades ago, to develop tests, vaccines and study viruses, so we could have a quick response to Covid-19 now. The collective effort will allow us to find answers like the ones we are getting now, joining many areas of science together at once. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>Speaking of continuity, there are reports of medicines tested for SARS that were abandoned when that outbreak was controlled. Meanwhile, many pieces of research in Brazil have been redirected to focus on Covid-19. Do you think we are at risk of losing on both fronts if there’s no more interest to continue research when the pandemic is over?&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>We’ll need continuous investments even after Covid-19 is gone, which I think is going to take some time. It will take years to make the entire population immune, even after we have a vaccine. You make a good point, but we cannot foresee the future. We need to keep both public and private sectors informed, so we can have long term plans. I really hope this investment won’t stop after Covid-19. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>In Brazil, there’s a mistrust in science, many people even doubt official data from the Health Ministry. Is there a way for science to help the public debate in Brazil? What is the missing link to reaching the population that is not used to dealing with science?&nbsp;</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>If people pay attention to what the health sector is saying, there is a strong and even unanimous voice regarding this subject. If you get sick, you go to the doctor; it’s common sense. In a pandemic, we must listen to health professionals because they know better. Even though we have media noise — with so many opinions — the opinion of the health sector is very united in saying that the use of medicines has to go through the approval process, which involves clinical trials. My message would be for people to listen to the health professionals in order to avoid the noise. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>But in Brazil, and even in the U.S., heads of state Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump are publicly opposing the view of health professionals, claiming that anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine may be a cure for the virus. In Brazil, Mr. Bolsonaro even sacked his Health Minister, who — before being fired — admitted that people don&#8217;t know who they should be taking advice from. Would you say this is a hazard to public health?&nbsp;</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Yes, absolutely. In a pandemic, who are you going to listen to? The health professionals. It is important we listen to them and that they may make the best decisions for the population. And this has to be done above political interests. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>What do you expect for the scenario of international mobility after the pandemic is over? Is there a chance that it may be harder for Brazilian students and scientists to move abroad?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>This situation is making exchange a bit more difficult, unless it is for Covid-19 studies. Many students that were in the U.S. or Europe for other programs are coming back to Brazil. Speaking of the future, we are living in a moment that international cooperation is on the high-end of solutions for this global issue and I believe this is showing how science needs this exchange of information and experiences.</p><p>International exchange goes beyond sharing research, it involves the exchange of cultures. This cannot stop. I believe that, for now, the pandemic may have a negative impact, but in the future, it will become an example of the benefits of international exchange. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>We have an unprecedented level of cooperation between scientists using digital tools amid the pandemic and even accelerating the publication of papers. How do Brazilian scientists fit into this context? Could this new way of working accelerate Brazilian research?&nbsp;&nbsp;</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Now we have all these tools, such as Zoom and Skype, that are available for free. I believe this will change the way we work, we are discovering new ways to collaborate on an international level and the ability to make large gatherings in a fully digital way will alter the future of cooperation. At Dimension Sciences, we are the only ones focusing on scholarships for scientists that have lost their funding in Brazil and continue working on Covid-19 task forces. But how did we find out about that? By talking to the laboratories involved in the task force via WhatsApp. </p></blockquote> <p><strong>Can you give more details on that? Because the federal government says it is offering 2,600 scholarships related to Covid-19 and BRL 200 million in funds.&nbsp;</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The Education Ministry has increased scholarships for some programs and cut 6,000 scholarships for others. Of course, they had to make a choice. The problem is that new projects were harmed — not because they were not good, but because they were in early stages. So you have projects at the University of Brasilia and in some Northeastern states that were harmed, but as you have a task force in those states, professionals that were working in diagnosis, treatments, vaccines, bioinformatics, sequencing, many were affected and lost their scholarships for Masters, Ph.D., and post-doctorate programs. Those professionals are very passionate and continue working, even without funding.</p><p>We have identified this as an important area to invest in at Dimension Sciences. We are making a program to help the scientists that lost their funding and the first seven scholarships are due by early May. We have already opened the application process and we’re choosing the candidates.

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Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Before joining The Brazilian Report, she worked as an editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

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