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Brazilian scientists may get shut out of the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope in Chile.

Herton Escobar

Cuts imperil Brazil’s stake in astronomy observatories

SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—Strapped for cash after 3 years of austerity budgets, Brazilian scientists are bracing for an even harsher year ahead. The federal government is planning to slash science funding by nearly 40% in 2018, jeopardizing major projects including Brazil’s participation in world-class telescope facilities, ScienceInsider has learned.

Brazilian scientists were already reeling before the latest dispiriting news. This year, the science ministry absorbed a 44% budget decrease. Perennial cuts are “choking” institutes “to the point of endangering their existence,” says a manifesto released last week by 19 institutes managed by the federal science ministry based in Brasília. The money woes, they claim, are causing “irreversible damage” to institutions that are crucial to the nation’s economic recovery.

“This is a very serious situation,” said Bruno Castilho, director of the National Astrophysics Laboratory in Itajubá, Brazil. His budget also was halved this year. Current reserves don’t even cover water and electricity bills, he says, let alone Brazil’s participation in the Gemini Observatory—twin optical and infrared telescopes in Chile and Hawaii—and the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope in Chile. If Castilho can’t find at least another 4 million reais ($1.25 million) by the end of the year, he says, Brazilian astronomers will lose access to those facilities. The prognosis is grim, he says: “We don’t have anywhere else to cut.”

Also imperiled is next year’s planned launch of the Amazonia 1 satellite—an Earth observation satellite that will monitor deforestation and other land use changes—and daily operations of the Tupã supercomputer, which is crucial to weather forecast and climate research, says Ricardo Galvão, director of the National Institute for Space Research in São José dos Campos, Brazil. The federal government has authorized the institute to spend less than half of its planned 220 million reai budget this year, withholding the rest as “contingency funds.” “We are running a detailed study of all the projects that might have to be frozen or discontinued to secure our operational expenses,” Galvão says.

Brazil’s ability to predict extreme weather events may also be compromised. The National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters in Cachoeira Paulista is running out of funds to maintain its nationwide network of sensors and monitoring stations. “If the 2018 budget is the same as this year’s, I don’t know how we are going to survive,” says Director Osvaldo de Moraes.

Many fear things will get worse before they get any better. A constitutional amendment approved last year prohibits the federal government to increase spending above inflation for the next 20 years The situation is “dramatic,” says the science ministry’s executive secretary, Elton Zacarias. The ministry, he says, is negotiating with federal planning officials to try to win an increase in the funding cap.

“We have to solve this now,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro. “People are leaving the country, laboratories are shutting down.” It’s understandable that sacrifices are necessary in times of economic hardship, he says, but he insists that the cuts to science are shortsighted. “When you cut across the board, you don’t have priorities.” He decries the cuts as an “atomic bomb” that will leave a legacy of destruction for future generations.