Scientists Must Heed Society

Ordinary Brazilians have only the scantest information about the country’s science infrastructure or the benefits that medical science can bring to their lives, despite widespread popular discontent with deficiencies in the country’s two-tier health and education systems, a survey has found.

The survey delivers a wake-up call to Brazilian universities that have operated too long as academic ivory towers and by neglecting popular science have failed to spread the benefits of their work to a knowledge-hungry population, scientists acknowledged.

A poll of almost 2,000 Brazilians in the states of São Paulo and Bahia found that just 15% were able to name any scientific institutions of note, while only 10% said they ever watched science programmes on TV. Only a quarter of respondents said they believed science was more important than having religious faith.

The study makes dismal reading for those responsible for science education and policy at federal level. Two thirds of respondents in the latest poll said they had received at best average or poor science and technology teaching at high school. This confirms that educational inequalities are glaring and that Brazil is still a long way from its goal of joining the ranks of knowledge-based societies, despite recent high-profile policies such as the “Science Without Borders” programme to send undergraduates abroad.


University of Campinas Laboratory of Advanced Journalism Studies

The survey carried out in 2013 by the Laboratory of Advanced Journalism Studies at University of Campinas (Labjor) was the third in a decade long series that was originally sponsored by the Organisation of Ibero-American States (OEI) and Ricyt/Cyted (regional organisations sponsoring science and technology). Similar studies have been carried out in other Latin American nations and Spain. The results were published jointly with Datafolha, the polling arm of the leading newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

The survey was coordinated by Carlos Vogt, a former rector of Campinas University and president of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), which sponsored the programme. He told Brazilian reporter Veridiana Scarpelli: “the survey shows the huge importance of communication and the requirement for links between research and the sharing of knowledge about research and technology.”

Labjor had previously published the results of its surveys from 2003, 2005 and 2010. But the 2013 results which focussed on popular awareness of science in the health sphere, provide especially disturbing reading because they indicate popular aspirations are not being met though education, knowledge sharing  or the provision of science career opportunities.

1511 respondents in São Paulo state and 404 more in Bahia were asked questions such as “How can science and technology help us live healthier lives?” While 74% of respondents in São Paulo agreed science and technology would improve their health and the environment, and the profession of scientists was deemed desirable or admirable by 87% of respondents, science and technology still lagged in seventh place among favoured interests, behind sport. And though interest in medicine and health ranked in second place for all respondents the amount of information they had access to, ranked substantially lower.

Ranking of interest levels about  popular science and healthcare. Source Datafolha

Ranking of interest levels about popular science and healthcare. Source Datafolha


Othon Jambeiro, the scientist from Bahia University responsible for the Salvador part of the survey, agreed it was “shocking to see how little people know about universities and other institutions. The situation was, he said, “dramatic, because the function of universities is to produce knowledge and pass it on to the population … perhaps universities have not been aggressive enough in knowledge sharing.”

Labjor researcher Ana Paula Morales, told the Brazilian reporter Veridiana Scarpelli the results showed it was time to “bring learning institutions closer to the population.”

Questioned about their access to information about science, technology and healthcare, respondents from São Paulo named TV, family and friends and the internet as their primary sources. 40% of those in Salvador said their primary source was TV and internet, while just 11% read books or magazines about science. Museums and science exhibitions rated just 5%.

Ranking of Information sources for science and healthcare . Source Datafolha

Ranking of Information sources for science and healthcare. Source Datafolha

The survey had no intention of polling public attitudes toward politically-sensitive topics. But the results, which are published against the backdrop of rising public protests against Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup, cast an interesting if unintended perspective on the persistent demands made in street demonstrations for better education and better public health.

Media attention focussing on the World Cup has given some “publicity oxygen” to these demands for better healthcare, well articulated in street placards coordinated by the #naovaitercopa campaign of protest. Although the government has responded with some steps, such as the ‘Mais Medicos’ programme to recruit Cuban doctors, generational reforms are needed to harness Brazil’s true potential in the science and healthcare sector.

World Cup protesters want what scientists can offer: education and healthcare

World Cup protesters want what scientists can offer: education and healthcare

Ordinary Brazilians clearly value the benefits of science, especially in the field of healthcare. And they hold the role of scientist in singularly high esteem. Yet there is clearly something lacking when it comes to creating a culture of “popular science” and widening access to information. Educational trickle-down just isn’t happening fast enough to meet society’s aspirations for greater equality and development.

The reasons may be cultural: Brazil’s elitist system of publicly-funded universities has long been haunted by patrician figures with secure ‘jobs for life’ and little interest in or incentive to popularize science. It’s noteworthy that in the publishing field, Brazil has little tradition of popular science.

Few academics willingly take on the role of “public standard-bearer” and apart from political scientists, academics are hardly visible in the local media. There is no equivalent ‘TV scientist’ figure to match Carl Sagan, Don Herbert, or the UK’s Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox.

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