Brazilian academics worry about more funding cuts proposed by new government

Brazilian academics worry about more funding cuts proposed by new government

The woes of Brazilian researchers are far from over as the country’s science is in a state of turmoil yet again. The new government headed by President Michel Temer is attempting to pass a constitutional amendment that would contract the Brazilian economy to 3.4% this year, following a 3.8% contraction in 2015. The Brazilian science community, which is still reeling under the last year’s plunge in science budget, feels that this move would be catastrophic for the country’s scientific enterprise.

Brazil is currently in the middle of an economic crisis. To stabilize the economy, President Temer has proposed a constitutional amendment – Proposed Constitutional Amendment 241/2016 (PEC 241) – to cap government expenditures. As per this proposal, for the next 20 years, the government would base subsequent years’ spending on the previous year’s budget, adjusting only for inflation. The 2016 federal budget for science, technology, and innovation at around $1.5 billion is at its lowest in a decade. Thus, if this amount becomes the baseline to determine budgets for scientific research in the future, it would put severe constraints on science spending. Further, the proposal states after the legalization of PEC 241, the government will not increase public expenditure on science even if the Gross Domestic Product of Brazil increases. This has sparked concerns within the science community who believe that diminishing the science budget further would put the future of science in limbo. The science landscape in Brazil is in a dire state owing to the previous President’s regimen, and the latest federal proposal threatens to worsen it further. “It will be a disaster,” says Luiz Davidovich, President of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro, echoing the sentiments of most academics in Brazil.  Davidovich, who is also a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, shares a stronger opinion: “There is no way we can survive another 20 years like this.”

Since last year, researchers in the country have been hit hard by the science budget cuts ordered by ex-President Dilma Rousseff. Several research projects have been stalled because the government has failed to release funds. The effect of this economic crunch is apparent in the way the national agencies are truncating their initiatives. At the start of the year, the country’s prominent science funding agency, National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (NCSTD), announced that they could no longer afford new scholarships both for graduate study or research abroad. Another initiative that has been hit by budget cuts is Science Without Borders, a breakthrough program that promotes international mobility of undergraduate and graduate students and researchers. The funding allotted to this program has dropped from $4.8 billion in 2015 to $1.96 million in 2016. Several agencies are reducing the number of scholarships they offer and some are even struggling to pay their bills.                      

What is riling Brazil’s science community is the government’s solution to cut down on science and education funding to overcome the financial predicament. “Smart countries increase funding for science, technology, and innovation to get out of a crisis. We are doing the opposite,” said Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in São Paulo. Worried over the straitjacketing of science budget, academics are questioning the government’s lack of vision. Tatiana Roque, president the professors’ union at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said, “During the governments of five presidents, we never saw before such a serious attack on these fields.” It remains to be seen whether this amendment gets a nod from the Senate, which will make a decision on December 13, 2016.      

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