A Bolsonaro defeat will not fully undo his damage to Brazilian science

Deep cuts may be reversed, but the Brazilian president’s anti-science rhetoric will do lasting damage, says John Aubrey Douglass

December 10, 2021
The Brazilian rainforest being burned
Source: iStock

It is now less than 10 months until Brazil’s next presidential election. However, for the country’s beleaguered academics, that period could well be the longest 10 months of their lives, as Jair Bolsonaro’s assault on science is ramped up to a fever pitch.

Political support for the current president is collapsing as his chaotic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic becomes clear. Last month, the official death toll from coronavirus passed 600,000, with a senate committee recommending he be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity” for his disastrous response to coronavirus. But Bolsonaro, often referred to as the South American Trump, insists he is not going anywhere.

Ominously, that pledge applies even if he loses in next October’s presidential election. “From what I see in the streets, I won't accept any result that is not my election,” he recently proclaimed. Another in his series of defiant statements: “Only God will remove me.”

That echo of Trump’s speech in Washington prior to the storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January is the latest similarity between the two men, who are also united by their anti-science rhetoric and attacks on the scientific community. From climate change denial, slashing of environmental regulation and enforcement to initial claims that Covid-19 was a hoax, their anti-science playbook appears well-thumbed.

Even after they admitted that the pandemic was real, both leaders fallaciously insisted that it was a minor problem that could be mitigated by a drug meant for livestock (ivermectin) and another developed to treat malaria (hydroxychloroquine). They then not only failed to endorse vaccinations but arguably obstructed their distribution. In Brazil’s case, the results have been tragic, reflected in the criminal charges arising out of the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But there is more to the science story. Both Trump and Bolsonaro have portrayed science as hopelessly politically biased and have depicted public institutions such as universities and government-operated laboratories as untrustworthy hubs of political opposition. Trump has repeatedly claimed that universities are intolerant of conservative viewpoints and hotbeds of radical leftism. Bolsonaro goes even further, saying that academia is full of socialists and, worse, communists; in the initial months of his presidency, he sanctioned a few raids on faculty offices.

As in past populist movements, there is also an anti-expert, anti-intellectual theme that insists that scientists, engineers and academic in general are part of the “deep state” – a conspiracy of technocrats and elites opposed to Trump and to Bolsonaro and the people that support them. Draconian proposals to cut funding for research followed, as did the censoring of scientists on government payrolls.

Trump’s first attacks on science – deep cuts in funding to federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health – were stopped in their tracks by lawmakers. And bigger cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then battling the Ebola epidemic, the Zika virus and opioid use, also fizzled out. These bodies are now spending more than ever.

But Bolsonaro faces much less resistance. In October, he signed a bill that reduces the federal science budget by some 90 per cent, diverting 600 million reais (£82.3 million) from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to other government agencies. It has sent shock waves throughout the scientific community in Brazil.

“I spent some time to try and let the news sink in,” said Luisa Viegas, a biologist at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceió, whose research focusing on the impact of climate change on amphibians and reptiles in Brazil is one of 8,000 projects that will likely lose their funding.

But Bolsonaro’s gambit to eviscerate federal science may not come to full fruition. Opposition is growing. The business community and the judiciary have vocally opposed some of his most radical proposals, many of which violate Brazilian law, and members in the National Congress have sought to block them.

Back in early 2019, for example, just months after taking office, Bolsonaro wanted to freeze all funding for the ministry of science and technology, a move that would have cut off scholarships for thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral researchers. The government ultimately released the money.

“Public opinion, many members of Congress, the media, and the Supreme Court successfully limited Bolsonaro’s aggressive efforts to control university governance and leadership”, as well as its scientific community, note Elizabeth Balbachevsky and José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque in a chapter in the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities.

More vulnerable have been the federal scientists in research and regulatory agencies. Since 2019, Bolsonaro has sought to stop research related to climate change and the Brazilian environment, accusing the National Institute for Space Research of "lying" about satellite data showing increased deforestation in the Amazon and firing its director, physicist Ricardo Galvão.

However, Trump lost to Joe Biden. And Bolsonaro is well behind Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his leftist long-term nemesis, in the polls. Can such demagogues, whose appeal is grounded in anti-science sentiment, stay the distance, particularly when public health emergencies loom so large in the popular imagination? It seems not.

If Bolsonaro does follow Trump out of office – likely amid similar spurious claims about a rigged election – scientists will no doubt breathe a huge sigh of relief. But what about science itself? Trump did not inflict permanent damage on the US’ world-leading scientific community, but Brazil does not have the same level of resilience.

What is evident is that the demeaning of science and scholarship – via the promulgation of the idea that facts are a matter of debate – aligns with a precipitous decline in the trust in public institutions and democracy itself. This will have a long-term deleterious impact, in Brazil and the US and elsewhere.

John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow and research professor in public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley. He is the lead author of Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education, published open access by Johns Hopkins University Press and accessible via Project Muse.

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