SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—The latest federal budget news coming out of Brasília has Brazilian scientists fearing the worst. On 29 March, faced with a stagnant economy and falling tax revenues, the government announced it was “freezing” nearly 30 billion reais ($7.5 billion) of the country’s public funds for the year, including a 2.2 billion real slice of the science ministry’s budget. If the freeze isn’t lifted, funds for scholarships and research will be cut by 42%—a blow that would come on top of a series of other cuts in recent years.
“We were running on a flat tire; now they took out the wheel,” says Ildeu de Castro Moreira, a physicist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science here. If made permanent, the freeze could have “tragic” consequences, Moreira predicts. Many laboratories and research institutions might be pushed into stagnation, including federally funded facilities that provide crucial services such as weather monitoring and public health surveillance.
A freeze means the money remains in the government’s budget but is locked down as “contingency funds” that can be spent only if the economy improves or new sources of revenue are found. (The idea is to keep the country’s primary debt under control.) For now, Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication (MCTIC) in Brasília is authorized to spend only 2.9 billion reais in support of R&D in all of Brazil this year—about a third of what it had 5 years ago, and less than what NASA typically spends on a single Mars mission. “We knew there might be another contingency measure on the way, but we never expected it to be so extreme,” Moreira says. “When you have so little to begin with, every loss is a major loss.” The only department to see a larger share of its budget frozen was Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.
“It’s an irrational policy,” says Mariana Moura, a researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Energy and Environment here and co-founder of the Engaged Scientists movement. “Every other country knows that you need to increase funding for science and technology to grow the economy.”
Even the country’s flagship science project, the synchrotron light source Sirius, now under construction in Campinas, is at risk; 80% of the funds it depends on to complete construction and start commissioning the facility by the end of this year have been frozen.
We knew there might be another contingency measure on the way, but we never expected it to be so extreme.
In a press statement, MCTIC says it is “committed to recuperate investment in research,” and is still analyzing how the freeze will be implemented throughout its many agencies and programs, including the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in Brasília, Brazil’s agency for basic research funding. Even before the freeze was announced, CNPq’s management had warned it didn’t have enough money to make it through the year.
During previous freezes, scientists have pressured the government into releasing some of the frozen funds. It’s unclear whether that will happen again; so far, President Jair Bolsonaro has done little to make good on his promise to make science and technology a priority and raise Brazil’s spending on R&D from 1% to 3% of gross domestic product.
The funding collapse threatens to “dismantle” an R&D system that took decades to build and is pushing a new generation away from science, says former CNPq President Hernan Chaimovich, a biochemist of the University of São Paulo here. “Consolidated research groups are scraping by on whatever funds they still have left from previous years, while young scientists are left without hope,” he says.
“I really hope we can reverse this situation,” says Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro. “We can’t take another hit like this. It’s just too little to survive on.”