Research Pips Squeak as Funding Squeeze Tightens.

Brazil’s universities need urgent injections of cash to make up for collapsing public funding, warn senior academics seeking to convince public opinion that they represent excellent value for money and are worthy of attracting new sources of investment.

Writing in the Estado de São Paulo, one of the nation’s top-selling dailies, three leading academics insist that Brazil’s universities are cheap to run, compared to the long-term cost of allowing decades-worth of knowhow to slip away. “We need to propose alternatives to help the development of knowledge in Brazil and the training of our people,” they say. You can read an English (machine translated) version of the Estado’s Op-ed article by clicking here.

The authors are Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director at the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), Fernanda de Negri of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), and Marcelo Knobel of the University of Campinas, one of the top institutions in São Paulo state.

Their campaign comes at a time when federal funding for science research – already slashed by 44% last year – faces a further 20% cut. Since May 2017 when SFB reported first on the collapse in funding for Brazilian science, the situation has deteriorated sharply. Local commentators claim much research activity has now gone into “intensive care.”

Brasília's Ministries: erratic funding and uncertain future for science.

Brasília’s Ministries: erratic funding and uncertain future for science.

Brazil’s higher education system today has few other sources of cash: Endowments from wealthy individuals or industry are virtually unknown, while tuition is free at federal universities. Compared to Harvard University’s US$ 32.3 billion endowment fund, the $20 billion funds at Yale and Texas University or Stanford’s and Princeton’s $18 billion cash reserves, Brazilian universities would be virtually penniless if the state pulled the plug.

Overall, just 5% of academic budgets for higher education and research come from non-government sources. Brazil does have commercially-run universities where students pay for their tuition, but these do not train PhDs or undertake any research.

Industry, for its part, has traditionally looked to the state to fund innovation in part or even wholly. Now, academics are trying to switch that mindset for the recognition that “innovation requires business investment.”

Unless Brazil’s state-driven system for funding science research is able to adapt to the new austerity (budgets have fallen from a peak of R$8.6 billion in 2010 to an expected R$2.7 billion in the coming year) by finding new sources of income, academics fear a massive brain-drain of trained scientists, with a resulting permanent loss of capacity to create a knowledge society.

The Estado trio use the University of Campinas (which was founded in 1966 and where Knobel is rector) as a case study in efficiency. Unicamp is the nation’s foremost technology university holding the highest number of patents, and so is directly comparable to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. Unicamp, however, has three times the number of students and only costs half as much to run as MIT. Yet unlike MIT, Unicamp (which ranked 195th in the 2016 World University rankings but between 401-500 in the 2018 THE rankings) is not seen by local industry as a natural partner in which to invest in order to spur innovation.

Campinas University

Campinas University has a long way to go before it can match MIT’s firepower with US industry.

Persuading society – and above all industry – that Brazil’s academic machine is well run and reasonably transparent, is the first step to tapping new sources of cash. “Brazil’s good universities are open to the demands of society – including the needs of companies,” write Knobel, Brito Cruz and De Negri. “We need to seek alternative sources of financing and to show transparency in terms of both costs and results.”

But, the academics write, Brazil’s top universities will have to become much more business-like, and clearly not all of them will survive. “They need to modernise their budgeting and create internal control mechanisms to ensure decisions are shared and transparent. They also need to be consistent with our nation’s economic realities, so we can show the costs and impacts. Brazil also needs to decide exactly how many top quality research universities is able to maintain to an international standard.”

Until recently the idea that Brazil might reduce or streamline – rather than simply expand – its universities, would have been anathema. The academics’ plea has certainly come rather late in the day: a diaspora of Brazilian scientists unable to pursue research in their home country has already fanned out across the world’s leading centres notably as Germany and the US.

Claiming that “the state is the great financier of science worldwide,” the writers still seem to nurture hopes that the government might change its mind and restore its generous largesse – despite abundant evidence elsewhere that Brasilia has been unable to free up cash by controlling runaway deficits generated by its public pension system.

One recent report highlighted the fact that the costs of grace-and-favour housing for Brazil’s federal judges was equivalent to one third of the nation’s science and technology budget.

Another perverse consequence of Brazil’s outdated labour laws designed to protect public employees, is that university vice-chancellors cannot respond to the budget crisis by cutting payrolls and using the savings to fund new research.

They must retain tenured staff and instead are mothballing laboratories and slashing materials budgets, thereby bringing research to a halt. At one university, research into the Aedes aegypti that carries Zika fever, has come to a halt as researchers complain there’s no money for test-tubes.

Comparative images of  microcephaly effect on infants. Image courtesy of  CDC

Urgent  research into Zika, which causes microencephaly, is being delayed

A recent report on the parlous state of scientific research in the local edition of the Spanish daily El País, cites multiple case studies of researchers abandoning Brazil and cites João Fernandes Gomes de Oliveira, vice-president of the Academia Brasileira de Ciências (ABC), as saying much of Brazil’s scientific community is now stuck “on standby” because there’s no money to conduct research.

The president of ABC, Luiz Davidovich, also added his voice to protests against budget  cuts. You can  watch a (Portuguese language) video by clicking here. He warns that vaccine production, management of natural disasters and other social  necessities will be be sacrificed.

One early casualty of the spending cuts  highlighted by Davidovich is Embrapa, the federal agronomy research institute.  Already, he warned, there is a brain-drain  going on. Just how strained the organisation is, was confirmed when Embrapa announced it  was  firing a researcher for daring to  protest the cuts in an article published in the Estado de S. Paulo. Zander Navarro was dismissed for penning an article entitled “Embrapa, please wake up!”

Ironically,  Brazil is a country with plenty of resources earmarked for  science and technology: it  just chooses not to spend that cash because of a deeply-ingrained sense of risk aversion among planners who prefer to save the money  “for a rainy day”.  According to  Wanderley de Souza, director of FINEP, one of the  federal resource councils,  the Sistema Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia (SNCT) — a kind of  national endowment —  has a  budget of  R$4.5 billion for  2018. However the  Treasury has instructed that more than  half this money  (R$2.3 billion)  must be kept as “contingency reserve” within the Treasury.

In other words Brazil has the money, but is refusing to spend it. This is  cultural rather than economic: just the same risk-averse mindset  is  visible inside the  Central Bank, which imposes the world’s most conservative restrictions on Brazil’s commercial banks, forcing them to leave money idle  to insure against possible systemic threats that never come.

After decades during which a state-funded university career offered the promise of a middle-class lifestyle and secure retirement, the edifice will come tumbling down unless news sources of cash can be found.

One obvious solution is to look abroad for funding partnerships with international research councils, or for innovation partnerships with international companies. The most developed strategy is being pursued by FAPESP, the state-funded regional research council for São Paulo, which channels cash to research at universities in the state.

State universities enjoy the benefits of links with Boeing, Microsoft, GSK, Agilent, Peugeot, BG, among others. Shell, for instance, is  financing  a number of energy studies together with FAPESP.

GSK

FAPESP has adopted partnership strategies with international industry to co-fund research.

With the decline in federal budgets, FAPESP has enjoyed a relative rise in importance, as it has managed to hold its budgets steady. You can read SFB articles about FAPESP’s strategy and its US$534 million budget by clicking here. And about its ability to offer long-term (11 year) research project funding thanks to US$630 million worth of endowments covering 17 fields of knowledge by clicking here.

During an election year in which special interests from every facet of business and public life are clamouring for special access to state coffers, Brazil’s universities are unlikely to win back the budgetary ground they have lost.

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