Goals Getting Harder to Reach

A striking aerial photograph of the Vitória-Trindade Seamount Chain, set in mid-Atlantic ocean some 1,000 kms off the south American coastline, summarizes Brazil’s current ambivalent attitude to the valuable scientific research it is generating.

The uninhabited islands of Trindade and Martin Vaz are the peaks of this seamount chain stretching along the ocean floor from the continent. A paradise for divers because of their remoteness and pristine status, these islands now appear – just like the country’s research goals – to be impossibly hard to reach.

Cover image: João Luiz Gasparini. Copyright Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, 7/09/2017

Reproduction of cover image: João Luiz Gasparini. Copyright Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, 7/09/2017.

Pictured on the Sept 7th 2017 cover of the prestigious journal Nature, the image illustrates an article on fish diversity and speciation in this mid-ocean habitat.

The Nature article by Prof. Hudson T Pinheiro and colleagues profiles seven years of work, funded almost entirely by CNPq, Brazil’s federal research grant funding agency. Prof. Pinheiro, who is an associate professor at UFES, the federal university of Santa Catarina state, and a research associate affiliated to the California Academy of Sciences, was able to prove that marine species (much better dispersers than terrestrial ones) are able to quickly vacant niches, even in this remote location.

Certainly this work, also described in a 2015 article published by PLOS and by the National Institutes of Health in the US, has garnered plaudits for the scientific team responsible for fish surveys carried out under challenging circumstances.

According to the authors: “Island biogeography research often concentrates on the terrestrial residents of islands, and how factors such as sea-level change, invasion and endemism influence their fortunes. Less attention is paid to the faunas of the reefs and inshore waters surrounding the islands.”

You can see a video of  prof. Pinheiro’s work in progress here:

Neither the quality nor the value of the research is in doubt. What’s moot though, is whether such research could be carried out today, given the subsequent virtual freezing of funding from CNPq in the 2016 and 2017 federal budgets. In years to come such projects may be fondly looked back upon as product of the boom times.

That’s certainly the view of Herton Escobar, a journalist and blogger writing for the leading São Paulo newspaper O Estado. He used the Nature article to illustrate a column 11/09 highlighting the funding crisis besetting Brazilian science.

Six months ago Nature – the same publication to highlight the offshore island fish diversity research – published a report describing a 44% cut in federal funds for science in Brazil.

Furthermore the Ministry of Science has been folded into the larger Ministry of Communications to create the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC). This has a budget of BR$ 2.8 billion, equivalent to US$898 million, the lowest in at least 12 years. Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat of concern from Nature about Brazil’s funding squeeze.

Closer to home – and much closer to the everyday needs of Brazil’s population – applied scientific researchers over recent years have demonstrated their utility. To date, almost all concern about deforestation in the Amazon has focused on species diversity, not human health.

A recently published study into the effects of biomass burning in Amazonia, following deforestation, showed the effects on local populations of prolonged smoke inhalation during the “queimada” season, which regularly shrouds a vast area. The study showed this smoke not only causes DNA damage and cell death in human lung cells, but that small particles (less than 10 µm (PM10) could potentially be contributors to lung cancer.

The article was published this September in Nature Group’s Scientific Reports by lead author Nilmara de Oliveira Alves from the Department of Pathology at the University of São Paulo’s School of Medicine, and her co-authors. Their findings are that 10 million people are directly exposed to high levels of pollutants resulting from deforestation and agricultural fires, and that PM10 concentrations observed during Amazon biomass burning were sufficient to induce severe adverse effects in human lung cells.

This research was funded by CNPq, its federal sister-agency FINEP, and by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

Epidemiologists in 2016 identified and successfully mapped the link between the Zika virus carried by the Aedes Aegyptii mosquito, and the appearance of newborns suffering from micro-encephaly. You can read here about the success of the São José do Rio Preto Medical School (FAMERP), where researchers identified resistance to Zika in pregnant mothers, thereby doing much to reduce widespread anxiety about this disease. This research by FAMERP was funded by FAPESP.

So, while Brazilian science could arguably forego the prestige and benefit of research into fish populations surrounding offshore islands, the positive human benefits of science being done elsewhere are too great to be trimmed away by budget-cutters.

Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more