Science for Brazil (Reino Unido)

Brazilian Science Goes To The Polls

Publicado em 27 agosto 2014

On the eve of presidential elections that could sweep a new left-of-centre coalition into power, the financing of scientific research in Brazil is experiencing a bewildering re-run of the old drama ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’

While science funding in the federal capital Brasília faces an uncertain future, it is positively blooming in industrial São Paulo, one of the few spots on the global map where long-term research funding is experiencing real year-on-year increases.

At federal level, critics say presidential candidates vying for control of Brasilia’s coffers in the first poll set for October 5th have made “rushed and vague” promises about future funding for science and technology, which has recently experienced erratic ups and downs. Brasília’s Ministries: erratic funding and uncertain future for science.

Neither incumbent president Dilma Rousseff of the PT Workers Party or her main challenger Marina Silva of the PSB Brazilian Socialist Party has made more than scant mention of science and technology. The latest opinion polls in Brazilian media showed Ms Silva had narrowed President Rousseff’s lead to 34%, down from 38% in early August.

The poll, published by O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, gave Ms Silva 29% of voter support, suggesting she may eventually triumph in a runoff 26th October. If so, this would end the PT’s 12 year hegemony of federal administrations, even though its activists have dug themselves deeply into every layer of state and municipal government and will provide formidable opposition.

A live TV debate held August 26th setting the rival candidates against each other, provided no knockout blow and as yet no clear indications who will be steering Brazil’s science policy from January 2015 onward. First TV debate between candidates: science policy plans “rushed and vague.” (Foto Reuters)

But in São Paulo it will make no difference which candidate wins local gubernatorial elections to be held at the same time as the presidential poll. A “grandfather clause” in the state constitution that no politician can alter, guarantees that 1% of all tax revenues must be spent on publicly-funded research. Science enjoys “grandfather” status in prosperous São Paulo.

Though Brasília’s announced federal science budgets rose from BR$8.8 billion (US$3.8 billion) in 2012 to BR$10.2 billion ($5.6 billion) in 2013, funding in 2014 sagged back down to BR$9.4 billion (US$4.5 billion) as promised new funds turned out to be reallocation of existing budgets, and the real currency took a beating. At the same time, new programmes such as Science Without Borders promoting overseas study trips for youngsters, ate into allocations for more serious scientific projects.

Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), criticized the electoral promises – or lack of them – made by all major candidates and of the October 5th election.

“Maybe because of the deadline to present the manifestos, which was too close to the selection of the candidates, the proposals seem to be rushed,” he told SciDevNet news service, adding the science in Brazil has been going through a bad patch under incumbent President Rousseff.

Palis and the ABC are concerned about a science programme Rousseff launched on 25 June to foster collaboration between industry and research institutions. They believe this National Knowledge Platform Programme might simply divert funds earmarked for basic research toward industry.

In any election, populist vote-winning promises tempt candidates – and none more so than the vote-catching boost of 10% in the value of the conditional cash transfer programme that benefits 36 million people, or one family in every four. The Bolsa Familia programme already absorbs over US$12 billion and thanks to the promised increase, will next year swallow a further BR$2.7 billion (US$1 billion), equivalent to one quarter of the federal science budget. Both main candidates have pledged to boost Bolsa Familia funding. Marina Silva: would she champion Brazilian science? (Foto Getty Images)

Quite distinct from the overall sums available for science funding under a new president – whoever she (or he) may be – there is concern about the efficiency of resource allocation by federal agencies. A recent study by Nature found that although Brazil hugely outspends its Latin American neighbours Peru, Argentina, Chile and Colombia have all achieved significantly higher citation impact than Brazil. You can read an article about science funding across Latin America that includes infographics on impact from Nature by clicking here.

In global terms, Brazil is no longer a meagre spender, being one of an elite group of countries (and the only one in Latin America) able to spend more than one percent of GDP on science. It is now responsible for 2.7 per cent of world scientific production and occupies 14th place in the world ranking, according to science ministry’s figures. About 35,000 scientific papers were published and 14,000 theses were defended in the country in 2012.

In dramatic contrast to the sense of drift and uncertainty about resource allocation in Brasília, the business of science funding is booming in São Paulo, the city that commands Brazil’s economic powerhouse state. Here, every buck seems to deliver a worthwhile bang.

The boom is visible right across this engine-room of Brazilian science and technology, producing over half the country’s research output. Much of the funding comes from state rather than federal sources, and is channeled through the state-administered São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) which in 2013 enjoyed a 7% rise budget to BR$1.16 billion (approx US$510 million). Rising tide of science funding in São Paulo

“The investments made by FAPESP have helped São Paulo become a dynamic centre for research whose outcomes make a real difference in economic, social and intellectual fields. These three areas are central to the further development of São Paulo, which is already responsible for half the production of knowledge in Brazil,” said FAPESP President Celso Lafer.

You can read more details of the allocation of funds to São Paulo universities, higher learning institutes and other programmes in the 2013 FAPESP Annual Report (in Portuguese). FAPESP 2013 Annual Report

Over the last decade, São Paulo has enjoyed a tripling of research funding channeled through FAPESP to the state’s three key universities that last year got 75% of the total funding pot. These are University of São Paulo (USP), Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) and University of Campinas (Unicamp).

In addition the following institutes received 5% of the funding: The Butantan Institute; The Instituto do Coração (Incor) at USP’s Medical Faculty; The Agronomy Institute (IAC), and the Nuclear Energy Research Institute (Ipen).

FAPESP also runs international programmes to attract visiting scientists. Its “Excellence Chair” programme for senior foreign talent in 2013 invested BR$1.6 million (US$700,000). Its “Young Investigator” programme for early career post-docs also allocated BR$1.4 million (US$620,000) in 2013.

Legislation that obliges São Paulo treasury to hand over 1% of all tax revenues meant FAPESP received BR$ 957.04 million in state funds, which rose in line with tax revenues and economic prosperity. The remainder of FAPESP’s budget (almost BR$ 200 million) was made up from endowment funds and transfers from other donors.

According to the FAPESP annual report published 27th August, its US$510 million cash pile helped to fund over 12,000 new and ongoing postgraduate and higher level research projects in 2013. In total, FAPESP received 20,000 requests for research funding.

Half the funding went towards pure and applied knowledge development, another 39% went to strengthening research pathways and the human resource development, while 9% went toward improving the infrastructure for research, including optimising conditions at labs and field locations. Recently, FAPESP has invested in such “big-ticket” scientific infrastructures as a light syncrotron, an oceanographic research vessel, a supercomputer array, and a stake in the largest high-tech telescope being built in the Andes by an international consortium. São Paulo universities enjoy steady rise in research funding since 2008

In addition to pure science, FAPESP has a wider mandate to foster knowledge and so supports the arts too. Publication of its annual report coincides with a FAPESP-sponsored show by well-known artist Renina Katz.

Furthermore, it has strong links to industry and as well as co-finding research centres with big firms. In 2013 the São Paulo state government and FAPESP announced the creation of 17 specialist research centres of excellence known as CEPIDS. These centres already employ 499 Brazil-based scientists and another 68 scientists overseas. The CEPIDS benefit from an 11-year, multi-sourced funding package totaling BR$1.4 billion.

FAPESP is also providing seed capital for tech and biotech start-ups beginning to cluster around university campuses in São Paulo , amid early signs that Brazil is fostering its own nascent “tropical Silicon Valley.”