Education: Promise to Pay?

In her inaugural speech January 1st 2015, re-elected Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff promised “a country of education” as the key theme for her second administration.

Academics and scientists might take that as a sign that education will finally enjoy its long-awaited day in the sunshine of presidential favour. A golden age of research should be on the way, with the Brazilian state putting more resources at their command.

Promise of education:  But can Rousseff pay for it?

Promise of education: But can Rousseff pay for it?

But for reasons of harsh economics we’ll describe in more detail below, that promise is likely to prove an empty one – at least for higher education. So Brazilian scientists will need urgently to change their state-dependent culture by finding new sources of support, if their projects are to survive a period of recession and looming funding cuts.

For many decades, government paternalism and a paucity of private investment has reinforced a culture of state-funded interventions and centralisation, which sets the tone across a sprawling network of public universities, research institutions and government quangos. The mantra for resource-hungry researchers has been “engage more closely with the state.”

Over the years they’ve done well: Brazil is the only Latin America nation to spend over 1% of GDP on research. But now that munificence could be drying up – and state aid has its downside too.

Over the years of plenty  another priority – “engage with society” – has taken a back seat. A life of genteel poverty and job stability ending with a secure state pension, is what many Brazilian scientists look forward to after a career toiling in relative obscurity. There is nothing comparable to the Menlo Park culture of the “scientist entrepreneur.” As a result, the culture of Brazilian science has become elitist, formal and disengaged from popular priorities.

Honourable exceptions apart, Brazilian higher education and science has acquired a persona that’s simply not structured for engagement with the mass population. Scientists don’t talk to the people, but to their primary client – the state. Research has shown that Brazilians society’s huge hunger for more science information simply isn’t being met. A study of 2,000 people carried out by the University of Campinas laboratory of advanced journalism studies about attitudes to science found only 10% of respondents ever saw any science on TV. You can read a detailed report and its conclusions here.

Despite its huge sophistication, Brazilian TV and the media in general is notable for the absence of broadcasting ‘crusader scientists’. Popular science items in weekly magazines focus on international breakthroughs. Brazilian academics write plenty of papers – but they seldom write books aimed at the booming consumer market, where the bestsellers are imports.


Astrophysics with Scaramouche - Brazilian answers need for  Brian May

Astrophysics with Scaramouche – Brazilian similars needed for Brian May

There is no equivalent to the UK’s “Rockstar Brians” – former Queen guitarist Brian May who is an astrophysics PhD, or Brian Cox, former rocker and high-energy physicist who is a prolific BBC science broadcaster. Right now it’s unthinkable that one of Brazil’s high-status scientists would follow in the populist footsteps of the UK’s Sir Martyn Poliakoff. The “nutty professor” has a youTube series “The Periodic Table of Videos” seen by millions – which in January 2015 helped earn him a title from the British Queen to match his stature as Foreign Secretary of London’s prestigious Royal Society. Nor is it likely that a version of the film ‘The Theory of Everything’ about physicist Stephen Hawking could be shot locally, as no comparable name recognition exists for any living Brazilian scientist.

Wanted: high-profile Brazilian scientist for biography

Wanted: high-profile Brazilian scientist for local biography

The notable exception is expatriate neurologist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke Medical Center in the US. Largely vilified by Brazilian colleagues for successful self-promotions such as staging a scientific “experiment” during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the controversial Nicolelis is as close as Brazil gets to a “rockstar scientist.” You can read a detailed profile of his work by clicking here. Despised he may be by Brazil’s establishment scientists, but the fact remains that Nicolelis has a bigger profile and has raised more money for his neuroscience research campus in Brazil’s northern Natal (including what publicists call “the largest ever private sector donation to scientific research in Brazil,” from banker Edmond Safra and wife Lily), than most Brazilian scientists can dream of.


Object of envy: science rockstar Miguel Nicolelis

Object of envy: science rockstar Miguel Nicolelis

Such munificent private donors are rare in Brazil – which is why universities and regional research councils are working hard to build international partnerships with leading research councils from leading nations, and with international companies able to fund local research centres.

Noteworthy here are the international accords struck by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), which finances some research at universities in this state through dollar-for-dollar funding deals with leading multinationals. These include GSK, Peugeot-Citroen, Boeing, Agilent, Intel and Microsoft. In fact, 60 percent of R&D expenditures in São Paulo state came from non-government sources in 2010.

Nevertheless, there will also be a need to seek funding from less predictable quarters further down the food-chain, and this will demand adaptability,  cultural change and flexibility even from conservative institutions.

Such concepts as crowdfunding of scientific projects – now being used in the UK to finance a mission to the moon – are in their infancy in Brazil and tend to focus on social projects instead of science itself. The leading player is Catarse, but reports suggest the region has a long way to go before it can occupy the same space as such US initiatives as California-based SciFund Challenge, or RocketHub.

Likewise, popular scientists do exist – but their status is not high because they are not sponsored by the state. Due to the extraordinary hunger of a mass army of would-be university students for good teaching materials, a handful of online “super-teachers” has emerged who are able to pep up the dull curriculum for the “cursinhos” or college crammers that prepare students for their science exams, by selling online access for US$6 a month.

Millions of likes for  biology professor  Paulo Jubilut

Millions of likes for biology professor Paulo Jubilut

One such is Professor Paulo Jubilut, a 34 year old biology teacher whose website provides engaging videos and teaching materials. Jubilut may be working at the coal-face of popular science, but his Facebook page has 1.85 million “likes” and is closing fast on President Rousseff herself (2.3 million). Like it or not, these popular scientists are reaching huge numbers of young people via youTube (some of Jubilut’s videos are watched by up to 800,000, so soon he may even outpace Sir Martyn Poliakoff). Clownish and verbose for some, talkers like Jubilut  are the new face of Brazilian science, and those who will actually be delivering the government’s “country of education” promise – in all probability without a cent of state aid.

Popular science icon with no Brazilian imitators: Sir Martyn Poliakoff

Popular science icon with no Brazilian imitators: Sir Martyn Poliakoff

All this at a time when Brazil’s “erudite” scientists operating with state funding are dealing with the stubborn reality that the publication of the country’s scholarly papers remains far below world average. A Thomson Reuters survey of the 178,313 papers published 2009-2013 showed most branches achieve an impact 30%-50% below world averages. For patent applications, Brazil ranked just 17th.

None of this would matter if the state could be relied upon as a reliable ongoing paymaster for education and science. But the signs are that researchers in Brazil will have to follow world trends by scrambling after diversified funding sources.

President Rousseff, who won reelection with the slenderest of margins by promising to extend conditional cash transfers, improve public health systems and expand public housing schemes to benefit poor voters, simply has no means to finance the aspirational promise of “a country of education” – except as an improvement to early years schooling.

As the country moves into recession for the first time in a generation and growth slows dramatically from 7% a decade ago to a forecast 0.8% of GDP in 2015, education must compete with other areas neglected during Brazil’s boom years, notably better healthcare, safer policing, and fixing a flawed judiciary that has allowed corruption to flourish to the point where it has brought what was once Latin America’s largest company, Petrobrás, to its knees.

Above all, Brazil’s state finances are broken and there is no money to fund presidential promises for better education. 2014’s promised fiscal surplus of 1.9% of GDP has shrunk to around 0.2% of GDP and even Rousseff’s decision to renege on a promise not to cut public pensions will not provide enough cash. Economists say that restoring the promised fiscal surplus would require budget cuts of R$65-70 billion (US$24-26 billion). With so much budgetary ring-fencing already promised, federal higher education and research budgets have few chances of escaping unscathed.

Rousseff has been obliged to accept as her finance minister a University of Chicago-trained monetarist, Joaquim Levy, who honed his budget-slashing skills while working at the IMF. With an eye to the bond markets and the now-likely downgrade to Brazil’s sovereign debt rating, Levy will exercise veto powers over many of the president’s spending aspirations.

Joaquim Levy: will his IMF-trained hatchet fall on research budgets?

Joaquim Levy: will his IMF-trained hatchet fall on research budgets?

At best, the 2014 federal budgets for Education (R$ 42.3 billion), Science, Technology and Innovation (R$ 6.9 billion), and Health (R$ 82.6 billion) are unlikely to see increases on Levy’s watch.

Even if education budgets do survive largely unscathed, the probability is that resources will be directed away from higher education and toward much needed investment in primary schooling and technical training. During the election campaign, Rousseff promised to address youth unemployment by enrolling up to eight million youngsters in new trade and technical schools through the Pronatec programme.

So during 2015 and beyond, Brazilian scientists will need to wean themselves off state aid and reach out to new sponsors in private enterprise both at home and abroad – and above all to society by making themselves more engaging and their science more sellable.

The old adage “publish or perish” may yet come into fashion – not just for scholarly journals, but in the popular press too.

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