Brazilian researchers and students protest cuts in research and education budget

Brazilian researchers and students protest cuts in research and education budget

Thousands of researchers, teachers, and students in Brazil rallied on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, to protest the freezing of research and educational funding. The nationwide demonstrations, which were organized by labor unions to protest the Brazilian President’s proposed changes in the social security and pension system, were joined by representatives from private universities as well.

Brazil is making a slow recovery from a stagnant economy for over a decade now, which has resulted in the downsizing of science budgets several times. However, what sparked the protests this time is the Brazilian government’s decision to freeze part of the already allocated public education budget in order to resolve the country’s ongoing financial crisis.

Education Minister Abraham Weintraub announced a 30% cut to the “discretionary budget” of federal universities, which involves spending on electricity, cleaning, maintenance, and utility bills. In response to this, Celso Napolitano, President of the Federation of Teachers of Sao Paulo (FEPESP), said: “The minister says the cuts only regard water and electricity bills, considered 'non-mandatory', but a university cannot run without water or light.” Heads of several institutions fear that the budget slash would hamper the functioning of universities and possibly bring it to a halt altogether. 

Apart from blocking the budget, the administration also suspended 3000 postgraduate research scholarships, reported Science. Elaborating on the effect of this move, Nathalie Cella, a biochemist at the University of São Paulo, said that graduate students contribute to more than 90% of Brazil’s scientific research and added that “a lot of people will have to drop out of their research if this situation is not reversed.”

According to a decree published in the Federal Gazette on May 15, 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration will now be able to control the selection of senior administrators in the federal university system, thus curbing the autonomy that educational institutions enjoy. Bolsonaro’s decree has deepened the concerns of the academic community.

While Brazilian academics have witnessed budget cuts several times in the past few years, it was President Jair Bolsonaro’s “scandalous” policies and insensitive remarks that fuelled the people’s frustration and resulted in a strong public reaction this time. According to reports, while dismissing the news of the rallies, the President called the student protestors “useful idiots” and “imbeciles.”

On his part, Bolsonaro explained that the budget cuts were part of the bigger attempt to cut down the overall government spending and that “there is no way around it.” Testifying before the Congress, Weintraub said that “there are no cuts, only contingencies,” and the funding could be restored "if the economy records any growth," reported Al Jazeera.

How do you think Brazil’s budget cut will affect the research community on the whole? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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