This follows an earlier post commenting on emerging policy from Brazil's new government.
Science has long ceased to be an exclusive concern for scientists and has become a strategic dimension of state affairs. In the contemporary knowledge society, where political and economic hegemony are almost always proportional to the degree of scientific and technological independence, this relationship is even more acute.
Since the 1950s, the Brazilian scientific community has strived to consolidate a national policy focused on science and technology. The period since has witnessed the creation of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) that have become fundamental to the country’s development. Nowadays, it would be impossible to imagine that Brazil could meet critical national demands related to social and economic growth without the participation of institutions focused on higher education and scientific research.
It was with great surprise and concern that these institutions received the news about the 42% cut in investments by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC) announced at the end of March by the federal government. Surprise, because the current government reached the presidency waving the flag for increased investments in science, technology and innovation (ST&I) from the current 1.5% of GDP to 3% as in the European Union. And concern because a decrease of this magnitude will have harmful consequences not only for national ST&I, but for society as a whole. Strategic sectors such as health, energy and agriculture, for example, will certainly be severely affected if these budgetary constraints are not corrected.
Federally-funded public agencies that integrate the national system of ST&I are central to the functioning of universities that depend on the resources these agencies provide to finance their research activities. It is important to remember that 95% of the Brazilian scientific production comes from public, federal or state universities and by research institutes, such as the Brazilian agricultural research company (EMBRAPA) and Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz). Disrupting the flow of resources to these institutions, as well as to universities, constitutes a strategic misunderstanding that will prevent the country from addressing many of its social and economic challenges.
Even More Cuts
In May 2019 the situation became even worse with the announcement of robust cuts in funding to federal universities announced by the Ministry of Education (MEC), apparently based on ideology. Criticism from the minister of education and the president focused initially on few federal universities, alleging that they were in “shambles”, whatever this might mean. Furthermore, both also stated that the government will only finance “useful” education, seeing the humanities as unnecessary.
After some confusion, the Ministry of Education (MEC) announced 30% in cuts to all federal universities and simultaneously (without prior notice blocked thousands of master's and doctorate scholarships (apparently 3500) throughout Brazil that had been approved by Capes. It is not yet known whether these will be the only cuts or if there is more bad news ahead.
In addition to the cuts themselves, a situation that is very disturbing is the attempt to minimize the problem. In the case of the cuts to public universities and in a weird attempt to explain the cut, the minister of education stated that the cut represents "only" 3.5% of the budget of the universities. Technically, this is almost correct, but he forgets to say that most of the university budget is consumed by payroll, not only of the active faculty and staff, but also retired employees whose pensions are included in the annual budgets and contribute to the appearance that the universities receive billions of discretionary funds from the government. Pension expenditures and active personnel are mandatory expenses that cannot be adjusted to cuts. Instead, the massive cuts will affect daily operating budgets, fundamental to the functioning of universities and this will actually cut budgets by 30%, making it impossible to operate properly. I could argue the importance of maintaining public universities and what they represent for Brazil, but even considering simple economic logic, we can say that these cuts effectively cut the “government´s own throat.” The federal government already spends billions of dollars on the salaries of staff and faculty. By making what the minister considers a “very small cut”, it will be impossible for universities to conduct daily operations at even minimal standards of quality. The consequence will be institutional paralysis, not to mention the consequences that this will have for the future of Brazil.
In the case of CAPES, the agency states that it has blocked only “idle scholarships” which is not true. The scholarships are awarded program by program. In the case of Unicamp, as an example, when one student finishes a thesis or dissertation, there are several other students in waiting for that scholarship which is renewed in a relatively short period. Unicamp has approximately 6 thousand doctoral students, around 1,500 PhD scholarships from CAPES, and therefore a considerable number of individuals waiting for a scholarship to be transferred from a graduating student. Thus, there are no idle scholarships at Unicamp that had approximately 55 cut in one week.
Several actions are being organized by the national scientific community led by the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and other entities in defense of research and against resource cuts for the national systems of ST&I and higher education with the Brazilian scientific institutions insisting that taxes paid by citizens should be respected for the purpose for which they were intended. A recent national strike for education, organized by several entities, mobilized more than a million concerned citizens to join the public protests.
Marcelo Knobel is rector of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp)and professor in the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute.