Frugal Science in the Age of Constraint.

“When the centre falters, look to the regions.” That’s good advice for international research funding agency managers looking for partnerships in Brazil, where federal budgets have been slashed. São Paulo state’s  funding body is a rare welcome light amid the gloom.

After an interval of almost 18 months, Science for Brazil is resuming regular coverage of the life scientific in Latin America’s largest nation. We’ll again be bringing you a mix of stories detailing innovations in pure and applied research, policy questions, case studies in international collaboration – and bitter budget issues currently besetting the nation’s top funding and development agencies.

For, since we last wrote in detail about science policy and science funding, much has changed – if only for the worse. Not just in Brazil but around the world, as the April 22nd March for Science in Washington DC and 600 other cities worldwide, reminded us.

March  for Science in Washington DC: John Shore photo

March for Science in Washington DC: John Shore photo

Brazil itself — where the beleagured community of researchers is facing a reduction of over 44% in federal funding for science — is no exception. In fact the level of cuts being protested April 22nd by marches in cities across the nation and by scientists in São Paulo, makes Brazil’s case a standout.

The deep recession has caused just about every economic indicator to drop around one third, so unsurprisingly the average budget reduction for Brasília’s other ministries is 28%. Nevertheless with a cut of 44%, science has been especially hard hit. In fact, science and technology no longer has its own ministry, following the 2016 fusion of this department with the more powerful Communications ministry.

Brazilian scientists join  global movement 22nd March

Brazilian scientists join global movement 22nd March

Of course Brazil is hardly alone: everywhere state-sponsored budgets for both pure and applied science are shrinking, as governments struggle with ballooning deficits caused by ever-higher costs in the fields of healthcare, social care and retirement benefits. The harsh irony is that only scientific innovation can provide long-term economic solutions to the problems besetting complex societies. Yet without more research into solutions for better health or social care, an affordable balance between education, work and retirement, no cost-saving measures will never be implemented.

Nevertheless it seems the policy mix has turned abruptly against state funding for science everywhere. In the United States the Trump Administration’s opposition to climate science, and its slashing of budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are behind angry protests that sparked the April 22nd March in Washington. Trump will cut funding for NIH by 18%, to $25.9 billion, making it one of the hardest-hit research agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will see its US$8.2-billion budget by 31% (with a 50% cut to its R&D budget), and lose about 3,200 of the agency’s 15,000 staff.

NBC news

Trump Slashes EPA: image by NBC

In Europe too, the fallout from the rising nationalism that is roiling EU policymaking, is having ominous consequences for science. Champion of uncertainty is the UK, where the Brexit vote has thrown into doubt not just UK participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 projects, but the right of non-UK nationals (including Brazilian scientists) to reside in the country for research purposes. Meanwhile the departure from the UK of key EU regulatory agencies such as the European Medicines Agency will have negative consequences for pharmaceutical innovation.

Could things be any worse than this in Brazil? Yes they could: the latest budget appropriations of the right-of-centre administration of Michel Temer show that Brasilia’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTIC) now commands a budget that in dollar-adjusted terms is just 50% of what it was 10 years ago.

Brazil's President Temer: deeper cuts to science than Donald Trump

Brazil’s President Temer: deeper cuts to science than Donald Trump’s

A report published in April by Nature showed MCTIC’s funding at just R$ 2.8 billion, equivalent to US$898 million — a R$ 2.2 billion cut from the 5 billion reais of funding that the government had originally proposed. In fact the cuts have been piling up for at least the last three years, ever since the left of centre PT administration led by former president Dilma Rousseff, lost control of the economy after her 2014 reelection.

No wonder, then, that a disconsolate Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), warned members the government “might as well publish a newspaper advertisement advising scientists to find another country” in which to work. Luis Davidovich, President of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences described the  2017  budget  as an “atomic explosion for Brazilian science.”

But it has not been all bad news. 2017 began with the announcement that R$1.71 billion would be cut from federal science budgets, as Brasilia’s Congress attempted to push through a stealth budgetary manoeuvre. However, angry protests in the New Year brought a respite, when R$1.71 billion of central funds that had been allocated from the insecure Fonte 900 category were shifted to the Fonte 188 category, underwritten by the National Treasury.

Brasil’s federal structure means that all the 26 states – as well as the central government – have budget allocations for science. Now, in an environment where central federal funding is dwindling, these state-funded agencies acquire much greater relative importance.

In fact, only a handful have meaningful activities with international reach. These are the state development agencies for science and technology of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo states – named, FAPERJ, FAPEMIG and FAPESP, respectively.

FAPESP (the São Paulo Research Foundation) has long been the “go to” agency for foreign research partnerships, thanks to the discipline, transparency and academic rigor behind its funding decisions. In funding terms it is also by far the largest of the regional funding agencies, thanks to a “grandfather clause” in the São Paulo state constitution that guarantees it 1% of all  tax revenues in the state that is Brazil’s economic  bellwether.

The 2017 budget FAPESP budget – on paper at least – is R$ 1.116 billion. In 2015, FAPESP invested  R$ 477.7 million in  research grants and a further R$ 425.4 million in institutional support fresearch programmes.

São Paulo economic powerhouse filling  gaps in federal funding.

São Paulo economic powerhouse filling gaps in federal funding.

That funding guarantee was sorely tested at the end of 2016 by a budget-cutting manoeuvre in the state assembly aimed at transferring R$120 million of FAPESP budget allocation, or 10%, to other state institutions. The move (which would have taken FAPESP’s share of state revenues under 1%) was challenged and eventually São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckimin backed down, promising to restore full funding in 2017.

FAPESP’s budget victory was a rare scrap of good news on the research funding circuit – and further proof of the negotiating skills of Prof. José Goldemberg, who since 2015 has been the institution’s 88 year-old president.

With Brasília’s collapse in funding for both MCTIC and CNPq, the main federal agency for research funding, this makes FAPESP a considerable power in the land. Furthermore it is the only agency with endowment mechanisms allowing it to undertake multi-year funding or more complex programmes.

Scientific protests blend with rejection of "Alternative Facts" at  San Francisco  rally.

Scientific protests blend with rejection of “Alternative Facts” at San Francisco rally.

Increasingly, FAPESP is shouldering the burden for Brazil’s “big ticket” science projects for which federal funding is now unsafe. A case in point is the Sirius Synchrotron accelerator, one of 42 projects the funding of which is being shared between MCTIC, Finep and FAPESP in a R$65 million deal.

In coming weeks we’ll be profiling the research projects that hold out most promise for 2017, and review those that are receiving funding either  international sources or from within Brazil. It’s great to be back!


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