Science Smiles Turn to Tears

President Dilma Rousseff was all smiles when she visited the glittering technology hotspots of California’s Bay Area during a state visit to the US end-June, that included talks in Washington DC with President Barack Obama. There seemed no limits to Brazil’s willingness to become a new partner for US research and innovation and all the good things that science brings.

In addition to touring the Googleplex at Mountain View where she rode in Google’s driverless car, she visited NASA’s Ames research centre, held talks with Boeing, and had lunch with Silicon Valley executives including representatives from Facebook, Uber and AirBnB, headed by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. She also breakfasted with University of California president Janet Napolitano.

Driverless science policy? At least Google sees Brazil's sunny side.

Driverless science policy? At least Google sees Brazil’s sunny side.

Yet the fruits of Dilma’s California tour were largely one-sided. It was less about creating greater space for Brazil’s research community – and more about creating commercial opportunities inside Brazil for US high tech companies and investors. Google will double the number of engineers working at its labs in Belo Horizonte.

And once she arrived at home, Rousseff was greeted by a rising tide of angry shouting as academics and scientists protesting the deep cuts imposed upon the recession-hit country’s science and education budgets.

Barely six months after she promised during her second inaugural speech to make Brazil a “country of education,” Rousseff’s government announced global cuts of BR$70 billion to her federal budget, including BR$9.4 billion from the Ministry of Education and BR$1.8 billion from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

After a decade of fast-rising budgets and dramatic increases in the numbers of both post-graduate and undergraduate students as the country raced to acquire the kudos of a “knowledge society,” Brazil’s education boom seems over. Scientists are furious that catastrophic mismanagement of the macroeconomy has weakened Brazil to the point where its long-term hopes of becoming a producer – rather than just a consumer and importer – of socially transforming high technology could be dashed for a generation.

Brazil expects at least two years of deep spending cuts and recession, with rising inflation looming and a wilting currency. Faced with the collapse of  its 2016 budget surplus hopes, Rousseff’s government is adding another US$2.7 billion (R$8.6 billion) in cuts on top of those recently  announced. It’s a truly ugly scenario for any scientist needing state support.

At the annual meeting of the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science) Latin America’s largest academic event held mid July in the town of São Carlos in São Paulo state, all the talk was of the 10% cut imposed on federally-funded research spending through the CAPES Research Council.

On July 17th SBPC’s board – with the unanimous approval of Brazil’s scientific community – sent a formal letter of complaint to Dilma. According to an Agencia Brasil news report, the letter says the cuts will affect over 5,000 postgraduate grants, and render many postgrad study programmes invalid, while the freezing of university capital spending budgets will have damaging consequences for scientific research. The letter also claims that basic education programmes will suffer.

Lights, Science, Action ... and Protest at Brazilian Scientists' meetup

Lights, Science, Action … and Protest at Brazilian Scientists’ meetup

It alleges that “unacceptable” cuts to the strategically-important education and science budget would have “negative impact in terms of insufficient investment which will only become visible over time, and will prompt the dismantling of a system that has been built up over the last 20 years.”

Certainly, university budgets for travel, lab consumables, and infrastructure support will all be negatively affected. The Ministry of Education, however, maintains that 90,000 postgrad study programmes will be maintained, and it stated that research spending is still well above the minimum mandated by the country’s constitution.

And while scientists at the SBPC meeting protested, so did postgrad students holding demos outside the Ministry of Education in Brasilia. The president of Brazil’s postgrad student association, Tamara Naiz, reportedly told protesters: “This ministry is one of the worst affected by the cuts… It’s not through cuts that we will build this country’s future. We will not allow them to cut our opportunities and our dreams.” In truth the writing has been on the wall for some time. Back in January, Naiz and her organisation had been complaining about delays in payment of postgraduate grants from CAPES.

The humbling rollback back of Brazil’s ambitious – perhaps overly-ambitious – targets for higher education is visible everywhere as the recession bites deeper and harder. The ruling PT’s populist programme to widen access to university and technical training to all, through federal funding of study grants at commercially-driven universities and training courses, has stumbled badly.

Promise of education:  But  Rousseff can't pay for it

Promise of education: But Rousseff can’t pay for it

The government’s FIES student funding programme is in disarray after education minister Renato Janine Ribeiro announced a suspension of funding for the second half of 2015. So far just 252,000 students have secured funding – far below the ambitious targets announced by Dilma at the beginning of the year. As proof of how rapidly the collapse has come, it was announced only in February that the FIES budget would actually rise from BR$12.3 billion in 2014 to BR$12.4 billion for 2014.

The BR$9.4 billion funding cut at MEC will affect another free-spending populist programme that has made Brazil an easy target for cash-hungry hungry vice-chancellors from the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. The Science without Frontiers undergraduate mobility programme, which began with a promise to spend US$1.0 billion plus on sending over 100,000 young Brazilians overseas, has been beset with problems caused by poor language skills. Now it faces deep budget cuts. Similarly, the PT’s PRONATEC vocational skills programme designed to keep young people away from the unemployment statistics, is down from 3 million to one million signed up for 2015. Overall numbers are already more than 65% down, say reports.

At a higher research level, there’s also anecdotal evidence that the cuts are already affecting Brazil’s leading academics – and some might be looking to the exits to carry their precious knowledge elsewhere.

A recent report said that neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Herzel, whose work on neuroanatomy and the function of ridges in the brain cortex has won international plaudits and a paper in Science, saw her requested budget of BR$100,000 from the CNPq research council dwindle to just BR$6,000. The scientist, who is head of the comparative neuroanatomy laboratory of the Institute of Biomedical Science at Rio de Janiero’s UFRJ, told a reporter that a multi-year grant from the US of US$600,00 supporting her work had been frozen by her cash-strapped university, and she was turning away PhD students.

At the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) angry academic bloggers are singing the same tune; that after years of budget largesse (from 2004-2013 the CAPES budget went up 667%) the cuts are taking Brazil’s government-funded research activity back down to levels not experienced since 2005.

Back to 2005? Brazil's education  budget facing deep cuts

Back to 2005? Brazil’s education budget facing deep cuts

The cuts are especially ill-timed, as they coincide with a report from the United Nations encouraging developing nations to increase their spending on science and technology research as a means of implementing millennium development goals. The Scientific Advisory Board to the UN Secretary General issued a report in early July (drafted by 26 senior scientists attached to UNESCO) describing higher levels of spending as a public good and a “critical game changer” for future development efforts. The report shows how Germany, Japan and Korea all emerged from post-war recession thanks to courageous investment in R&D.

A report on the UN paper by specialist website SciDevNet contains graphics that show Brazil had been faring better than many countries thanks to its effort of spending 1.2% of GDP on R&D in 2010. This had put the country in a select “1% club” ahead of India and making it the only Latin American nation to enjoy such status. This achievement is likely now imperilled as Brazil slips down the rankings, potentially blighting the research hopes of a generation.

One consequence of Brasilia’s  era of  budget austerity is that other funding sources will shine brighter for  local researchers. The importance of the  system of regional  research councils  financed by Brazilian states will rise – and so too will the importance of international research partnerships with Brazilian universities.

Those states  best connected with international research funding council will suffer least. That means São Paulo, which already produces half the PhDs and scientific output of Brazil thanks to the energy and professionalism of FAPESP (São Paulo  Research Foundation) is likely to see its importance  to Brazil science rise even further.

If Brazil’s scientific sector is bearing the brunt of a “hard landing” for an over-heated economy  now cooling visibly – then its academics might justifiably might point the finger of blame not at political leaders but at colleagues in the social science faculties whose vaulting social engineering dreams have come visibly unstuck.

Brasilia’s upper echelons are still stuffed with left-wing academic economists who preached a heady mix of Keynesian redistributive policies to resolve social inequalities, and an overly ambitious programme of state-funded infrastructure development that chose to ignore 2007-2012 world recession as they proudly decreed an end to the boom-and-bust economic cycle.

New guru in Brasilia: Friedrich Hayek, nemesis of keynes.

New guru in Brasilia: Friedrich Hayek, nemesis of John Maynard Keynes.

Brazil has certainly known bust before: in 1982 the then-insolvent country was first admitted to humbling economic boot-camp by a tight-lipped team of experts from the International Monetary Fund, who mandated a brand of austerity startlingly similar to that today being meted out for Greece by its European creditors.

But from 1992 Brazil gradually emerged from recession and went on to enjoy  more than a decade of boom under its free-spending PT government. Now, alas,  the pendulum has swung again.

And if this time around the pain of Brazil’s readjustment is much less – at least the discipline is internal. Before honing his budget-cutting skills at the IMF itself, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy was trained at the University of Chicago where right wing monetarist Milton Friedman is still revered. Likewise Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian liberal economist  and Nobel prizewinner who devoted his life to undermining  John Maynard Keynes, whose  achievements Hayek countered with an aggressive free market message that inspired Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Brazilian academics will have to take their budget medicine, and study their Hayek too.

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