Scientists warn of ‘Brazilian brain drain.’

Dramatic cuts in Brazil’s state funding for scientific research threaten to simulate an exodus of scientists, leading to a significant “brain drain” as native talent heads elsewhere.

This year’s 44% budget cut for the Ministry of Communications, Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTIC) is already leading to an “expulsion” of researchers whose future is threatened, according to an article in Valor Economico, Brazil’s leading financial and business daily.

With a fall in annual budget from R$6 billion to R$3.4 billion, MCTIC is finding itself unable to finance the activities of the main grant-funding agency, CNPq. Last year, CNPq’s budget of almost R$2 billion helped support some 90,000 grants for individual scientists.

The article cites Rio de Janeiro and its universities as the worst hit, noting that 10% of the 50 postgraduate researchers at the biophysics and medical biochemistry institute of Rio’s Federal University (UFRJ) have already packed their bags for the US and Canada.

Valor’s report validates concerns about Brazilian science funding raised in an earlier article published by SfB last month.

Professor Sergio Ferreira from the UFRJ biophysics and medical biochemistry institute was quoted as saying “Brazil is shooting itself in the foot by closing the door on innovation… in 10 year’s time we will be more backward than we are today because you can’t have technology without science.”

Certainly, there is much at stake: Brazil’s public health emergency prompted by the Zika virus (see article here) is a source of national embarrassment. However Brazilian scientists have already done much to unravel the links between the disease and microcephaly, which led to thousands of babies being born with abnormally small heads.

Neuroscientists at IDOR or the Instituto D’Or, a research unit at Rio’s UFRJ, led the way in finding out how the Zika disease attacks infant neurones. This research – led by Professor Stevens Rehen – was instrumental in helping the WHO change its guidelines for the disease. Such high-profile research projects could come under threat.

In addition to the cuts in federal funding, Brazil’s cash-strapped states are finding it hard to maintain their own commitments. Again, the worst affected is Rio de Janeiro, according to Valor, with FAPERJ, the state-funded research council named as being in substantial arrears since 2014 to the science projects it supports.

With the collapse of federal funding the spotlight is on CONFAP, the umbrella organisation for FAPERJ and 25 other state research councils, to develop strategies for making up the slack. However these research councils only have recourse to a tiny percentage of state revenues. And these – just like federal funding – have been in free fall since 2015.

The 26 state organisations within CONFAP are meeting mid May to develop a strategy to protect Brazil’s research base.

One consequence is that the steadily-rising number of postgrad and postdoc students turned out by universities since 1996, could now go into sharp reverse. The cuts are likely to mean that the 2014 statistics for the number of students qualifying (there were 50,200 Masters’ and 16,700 PhDs that year) will represent a high water mark.

There have been angry protests from the two main professional academic bodies – the Brazilian Society of the Progress of Science (SBPC) and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). Luiz Davidovich, ABC president, told Valor he could not recall period when things had been so bad for science in Brazil. Helena Nader, the SBPC president, said that here repeated protests to president Michel Temer and leading ministers had fallen on deaf ears.

Valor subscribers can read the article (in Portuguese) by clicking here



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