Jair Bolsonaro leads in the polls for Brazil’s presidential election.

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‘We are headed for a very dark period.’ Brazil’s researchers fear election of far-right presidential candidate

Beset by economic woes and dissatisfied with the left-wing politicians in power for most of the past 15 years, Brazil appears poised to make a hard turn and elect a far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, as its next president. His rapid ascent has unnerved local researchers, who worry about the future of Brazilian science, the protection of the country’s biodiversity, and its role in the global struggle against climate change.

“I think we are headed for a very dark period in the history of Brazil,” says Paulo Artaxo, a climate change researcher at the University of São Paulo (USP) in São Paulo, Brazil. “There is no point sugarcoating it. Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”

Bolsonaro has vowed to withdraw Brazil from the 2015 Paris agreement, which requires nations to reduce greenhouse emissions to combat climate change, and he plans to eliminate the Ministry of the Environment and fold its duties into the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Supply. The “Myth”—as his supporters call him—has also said, while campaigning in the Amazon, that Brazil has “too many protected areas” that “stand in the way of development.”

The 63-year-old congressman and former army captain fell just short of winning a majority in the primary election earlier this month, and he heads into a 28 October runoff with a large lead in the polls over left-wing scholar Fernando Haddad. The plight of Brazil’s research establishment, which has endured sharp budget cuts in recent years, has had little mention in the campaigning so far. When recently asked about his possible choice for science minister, Bolsonaro named Brazilian astronaut and former air force pilot Marcos Pontes, a member of his party, as his top preference.

A draft campaign document focusing on science—first revealed last week by the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo—offers additional insight into his plans. It pledges to more than double the level of R&D investment in the next 4 years, but would focus most of the extra money and attention on applied sciences such as space and robotics, rather than on basic research at universities.

Under the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above all,” Bolsonaro’s campaign exalts national pride, military discipline, and a zero-tolerance, iron-fist stance against crime. Famous for inflammatory remarks about women and minorities, Bolsonaro openly cherishes the 21-year military dictatorship that started with a coup in 1964.

Jair Bolsonaro, front-runner for Brazil's presidency, is a scary prospect for some. 

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Historically, Bolsonaro has had little to do with science, and he recently sparred with the academic community, authoring legislation to favor an unproven cancer therapy. A general he picked to craft his science and education plans defended the teaching of creationism this week, telling O Estado de S. Paulo that students need to know that “Darwin existed,” but not necessarily to “agree with him.”

Climate change is one scientific issue Bolsonaro has touched on. He hasn’t specifically questioned that humans are driving global warming, but his son, a popular Brazilian congressman, has done so in a video that celebrates the climate policies of U.S. President Donald Trump. And Bolsonaro has indicated that the Paris agreement’s mandate threatens Brazil’s national sovereignty, especially in the Amazon region, where deforestation for farming and cattle ranching has driven most of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Through law enforcement and mechanisms such as incentives for sustainable practices, Brazilian authorities have substantially reduced Amazon deforestation in the past 13 years, and the nation’s commitment to the Paris climate change accord requires it to continue that trend. Bolsonaro’s campaign instead promises to promote agriculture and mining in the region. One of the generals helping develop the candidate’s policies told O Estado de S. Paulo last week that he missed the days when road builders could cut down trees in the Amazon without being bothered by environmental authorities.

Unfettered development of the Amazon would be a “grave mistake,” says Eduardo Assad, a climate change and agricultural scientist at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation in Campinas. He adds that studies show Brazil’s agricultural production could be doubled by exploiting abandoned or degraded pastures and farmland—“without any additional deforestation.”

Haddad, a 55-year-old professor of political science at USP, offers more moderate views, focusing on social justice and sustainable development. But corruption scandals that culminated in the impeachment of Brazil’s then-President Dilma Rousseff in August 2016 and the recent imprisonment of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is closely associated with Haddad, have darkened his prospects. In a poll out on 15 October, he trailed Bolsonaro 41% to 59%.

Haddad’s campaign has pledged to “rebuild the national science, technology, and innovation system” and provide ample public funding to help double the intensity of the country’s R&D expenditure to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) by the year 2030. In his campaign’s draft science document, Bolsonaro pledges even more R&D investment, 2.5% of GDP by the end of his term, in 2022.

Many researchers doubt that either candidate can fulfill such pledges. “I’ve heard this promise many times before,” says Fernando Peregrino, a science policy expert and president of Confies in Brasília, a national network of foundations that support scientific research and higher education. Brazil lacks the economic policies and fiscal stability to provide generous support for R&D, he believes.

Bolsonaro plans to rely heavily on the private sector to boost R&D spending, through economic incentives and partnerships. “Our greatest deficit is in innovation,” says economist Marcos Cintra, president of the Brazilian Research and Innovation Agency in Rio de Janeiro, who is helping craft Bolsonaro’s R&D proposals.

As for public spending, the campaign document calls for a “greater balance” between “curiosity-oriented research and research directed towards missions and goals.” Brazil’s Ministry of Education now receives 60% of federal R&D funds, compared with the Ministry of Defense’s 1.5%, and Cintra argues defense should get more. “One of the political difficulties is that public research in Brazil still has a strong academic bias, without focus or specific priorities,” Bolsonaro’s campaign document says.

Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro, agrees that it’s important to define national priorities and strategic goals, but says academic and intellectual freedom must also be preserved.

Whoever wins the election, scientists here are unlikely to see any relief soon. Federal funding for the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communication has fallen by more than half since 2013, and the budget proposal for 2019—drafted by the current administration—predicts another 10% cut below this year’s.

“Even for the most optimistic of us, it’s looking bad,” Artaxo says.