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Brazil’s pick of a creationist to lead its higher education agency rattles scientists

SÃO PAULO—The appointment of a creationism advocate to lead the agency that oversees Brazil’s graduate study programs has scientists here concerned—yet again—about the encroachment of religion on science and education policy.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration on Saturday named Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto to head the agency, known as CAPES. Aguiar Neto, an electrical engineer by training, previously served as the rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University (MPU), a private religious school here. It advocates the teaching and study of intelligent design (ID), an outgrowth of biblical creationism that argues that life is too complex to have evolved by Darwinian evolution, and so required an intelligent designer.

Researchers are decrying the move. “It is completely illogical to place someone who has promoted actions contrary to scientific consensus in a position to manage programs that are essentially of scientific training,” said evolutionary biologist Antonio Carlos Marques of the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences.

Benedito Aguiar

CCS/CAPES

The appointment creates “insecurity” about how CAPES will shape education programs, says Carlos Joly, a biodiversity researcher at the University of Campinas.

CAPES is a key federal agency within Brazil’s Ministry of Education. It is responsible for regulating, supervising and evaluating all graduate-level programs at Brazilian universities, and funds thousands of scholarships for masters and doctoral students. It also issues funding calls for research and provides training for teachers in primary and secondary education.

Aguiar Neto was recently quoted in an MPU press release as saying that ID should be introduced into Brazil’s basic education curricula as “a counterpoint to the theory of evolution,” and so that creationism could be supported by “scientific arguments.” He made the comments prior to the second Congress on Intelligent Design, which was held at Mackenzie in October 2019. The event was organized by Discovery Mackenzie, a research center created by MPU in 2017 to mirror the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which also promotes ID.

Aguiar Neto had been rector at Mackenzie since 2011. At CAPES, he replaces Anderson Correia, who is now rector of the Technological Institute of Aeronautics, an elite engineering school connected to the Brazilian air force.

This is the second time under Bolsonaro that a nominee’s views on creationism have become an issue. In January 2019, Damares Alves, Bolsonaro’s newly appointed minister of women, family, and human rights, drew criticism for saying, in a 2013 video, that Brazil’s evangelical churches had lost influence in society by allowing scientists to “take control” of the teaching of evolution in schools. Brazil’s evangelical Christians are among Bolsonaro’s strongest supporters.