The scientific community faces a period of darkness. The government sharpened its scissors and cut 44% of the MCTIC (Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication) budget in March. Of the BRL 5 billion planned for 2017, BRL 2,2 billion are contingent: that is, the money “even exists”, but no one can spend it. The cut will yield 2017 the title of the worst science budget in 12 years.
Scissors have a reason, it justifies the government. GDP fell by 3,6% in 2016 and we reached the worst recession in history. When the finance and planning ministries announced that the public gap would be even greater than initially anticipated, almost all the ministries underwent cuts to try to contain the deficit. The goal was to cut R$ 42,1 billion (28%) wherever possible. Only the Ministry of Health was left out.
The problem, argues the scientific community, is that science has already been suffering “generous” cuts in recent years. In 2013, the budget was BRL 10,2 billion and was progressively reduced until reaching BRL 2,8 billion today (or BRL 3,2 billion, if you count resources from other science initiatives linked to the PAC – Growth Acceleration Program). Added to this is the fact that science already has a much smaller budget compared to other areas. The sector consumes around 1% of GDP, while health spending is around 8%. To complete, we had the fusion of the Ministry with the Communications portfolio in the Temer era.
“Exemplary results, such as a fourfold increase in agricultural productivity, an improvement in oil exploration in deep waters or even the fight against emerging epidemics… all of these are under threat.”
Luiz Davidovich, president of ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences)
Faced with the scenario, scientists are flabbergasted. “Look… the situation is serious, very serious”, says Helena Nader, president of the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science). “It's that image of someone drowning and a hand arrives to sink even further”, says Marcos Barbosa, professor of Philosophy at USP. “The cuts threaten the future of the country”, says Luiz Davidovich, president of ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences).
A Brazilian asked MCTIC about the outlook for the year in view of the cuts. The official answer is that the ministry tries to negotiate to recover the budget. What is said behind the scenes, however, is that this is unlikely to happen. It remains for scientists to draw attention to the impact of scissors: the cuts will affect the training of researchers across the country; they will paralyze laboratories for lack of supplies and materials; prevent payments for already approved research projects; and will make it difficult to implement measures for the internationalization of Brazilian science. “Exemplary results, such as the fourfold increase in agricultural productivity, the improvement of oil exploration in deep waters or even the fight against emerging epidemics… all of this is under threat”, warns Davidovich.
The cuts in science also come at a time when state research support foundations are struggling. These entities, which fund research and graduate scholarships, also face the crisis of the States and the recession. Fapesp (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa no Estado de São Paulo), the richest foundation in the country, receives 1% of tax collections in São Paulo. In January, however, deputies redirected R$ 120 million from the entity to research institutes. It was the first time that Fapesp had a budget below that provided for by law since its creation in 1960.
In Rio, the situation of Faperj (Carlos Chagas Filho Foundation for Research Support of the State of Rio de Janeiro) is so serious that there are delays in the payment of scholarships. “It's a big loss because these students survive from it,” says Tatiana Roque, a professor at UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). “In Rio, we formed a network to study Zika on all fronts, but everything is at a standstill.”
Also around 70% of Brazilian science is carried out within the country's public universities – and they are in crisis. The situation at Uerj (State University of Rio de Janeiro) reached such a point that in January the rectory warned the government that the university could close. At USP, an intense policy of voluntary dismissals disrupted the functioning of several university services and the day care center was closed. The current dean, Marco Antonio Zago, has set a ceiling on spending. The measure was dubbed the “PEC of the end of USP”.
With all this, the consensus is that the scenario not only affects the present moment and the future: it renders the investment already made unusable. For the researchers, while the country is lost in the midst of the narrow vision of adjustment, the social and scientific delay will not be easily recovered. “Brazil runs the risk of losing the competence built up over many decades”, says Davidovich.
While the keynote here is to hold the budget in times of crisis, the SBPC and ABC maintain that other countries have opposing views. The European Union, for example, has the goal of investing 3% of GDP in science by 2020. China wants to reach 2,5% of GDP. South Korea and Israel invest more than 4% of GDP. “Science is development. For every US$ 1 invested in science, US$ 7 returns”, warns Helena.
Cuts are lack of vision?
The idea that science brings certain returns to the economy needs to be better problematized in the Brazilian case, say researchers on the subject. For Renato Dagnino, from Unicamp, and Marcos Barbosa, from USP, the discourse of science as a lever for development must take into account the structure of the Brazilian economy and the fact that policies that bet on this facet of science did not work.
The science-development motto arrived in Brazil with greater force in the mid-2000s with the innovation policy. “Innovation here is the idea of a profitable invention”, explains Barbosa. The policy was intended to provide incentives to industries to develop more original projects with greater added value – a task that, in Brazil, has historically been performed by state-owned companies such as Embraer, Embrapa and Petrobras.
“The image that is forming that this government is obscurantist, that it does not like science, is wrong. It’s just the recognition that the data obtained is irrelevant to the market.”
RENATO DAGNINO, PROFESSOR AT UNICAMP
“It was a total failure”, says Barbosa. The last Pintec (Innovation Survey), referring to the period from 2012 to 2014, shows that 36% of the companies made some type of innovation, a value that was below the observed between 2006 and 2008 (38%). The index is a cause for concern because companies had great government incentives to innovate. And those innovation rates include things like the purchase of machines and software – when you think of “real innovation”, the data plummets.
Likewise, the lack of investment by the industry in innovation cannot be explained simply by an “absence of company culture”, says Barbosa. The researcher cites studies that show the reasons why innovation does not take off here. There are three: we are still focused on commodity production, which is less dynamic in terms of technology; in many industries, there is no scale for worldwide selling; and our productive sector is very “internationalized”, with multinationals that only replicate here the knowledge produced abroad.
Thus, the cuts can be partly explained why science is not achieving the expected results for a neoliberal economy. “The image that is forming that this government is obscurantist, that it doesn't like science, is wrong,” says Dagnino. "It's just the recognition that the data obtained is irrelevant to the market." Helena Nader, from SBPC, says that Brazil was beginning to show the business community the importance of innovation. “It was not an extraterrestrial that took the oil from the pre-salt layer. They were research centers all over the country, financed over all these years by Petrobras.”
for another science
If investment in science is not in the interests of the market, scientists should focus on the direct needs of the population, argues Dagnino. He says that many of our society's problems suffer from a “cognitive deficit”: that is, we do not have the knowledge available to think about our imbroglios, many of them historical. “You know that more than half of the Brazilian population does not have basic sanitation, right?”, asks the researcher. “If we want to solve the problem with conventional technology, we will have an absurd economic and environmental cost because this technology has not been renewed. Not to mention that we will not generate work and income, we will not promote sectors of the economy that could benefit from this purchasing power of the State”, he explains.
Dagnino advocates a review of Brazilian scientific policy so that the so-called “social technologies” are prioritized in Brazil, a branch of knowledge that has gained supporters on the left. It is the idea that science done with public money should be used to directly improve the living conditions of the population. According to him, also the hegemonic left should not consider science as neutral. There is a kind of science that can indeed promote more equality.
In the master class presenting this year's USP graduate courses, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis stated that science cannot live without utopia. Part of that utopia, he said, must lead the scientist to think beyond published articles or the grant received. “The scientist has a commitment to humanity and can have a political position.”
If for some this utopia is social technology, closer to the population; or the hope of a more competitive Brazil with innovative companies, the fact is that science needs to take this debate to society. In the latest Public Perception of Science and Technology survey (2015), carried out by MCTIC, 87,5% of respondents were unable to cite an institution that is dedicated to doing research in Brazil. And 93,3% did not even remember a single Brazilian scientist.
Driven by cuts and crisis, science has tried to seek dialogue. Proof of this is that for the first time here we had the “March for Science”, which on April 22 took place in 15 Brazilian cities. In São Paulo, the march showed the divisions that populate the scientific community. At the event, the speech of a guest who criticized government reforms was interrupted. The justification was the non-partisanship of the march. Also when a passerby asked for a voice, the organization only allowed the intervention after favorable manifestations from those present.
Perhaps not for nothing, science is seldom mentioned in the agendas of social movements – most scientists want to distance themselves from political debates, and a good part of the left does not include it in their demands. The scientific community is therefore faced with the challenge of bringing a national project to Brazilian society. And why not a utopia? Which country can science help to build and why does it deserve public resources? Let the debate come. And let everyone participate in it.