Scientists in Brazil say that they have reached crisis point after a government agency outlined how drastic cuts to public spending could leave around 93,000 postgraduate and postdoc places without funding from next year.
Brazil fell into its worst recession on record in 2017, leading to huge underfunding of public services. In May last year, Michel Temer, the country’s president, announced that the federal science budget would be slashed by 44 per cent, reducing funds to R2.8 billion (£576 million), with further cuts expected.
Tension among the academic community peaked in October when sector leaders staged nationwide protests against the cuts to science, which they said had forced institutes to close and talented staff to leave the country.
Speaking at the end of last year, Mr Temer said that the public funding situation was “under control”.
At the beginning of this month, however, the sector was alarmed by a warning from the leader of a government agency that all sponsorship of master’s students, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers would cease from next August unless the situation was addressed immediately.
Abilio Baeta Neves is president of the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes), a unit of the Ministry of Education that awards grants to postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers. In an open letter to the minister of state for education published on 1 August, he says: “If this [level of funding] is maintained, the impacts will be serious.” The letter also outlines potential drastic cuts to teacher training places in universities for 105,000 students.
“If this [level of funding] is maintained, the impacts will be serious,” says the letter.
“A budget cut of such magnitude will certainly be a great loss for Brazilian diplomatic relations in the field of higher education and could harm Brazil’s image abroad,” the letter concludes.
According to Fabio Zicker, a specialist in science, technology and innovation in global health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a biological sciences research institute in Rio de Janeiro, the cuts to federal funding have trickled down to local governments, leaving state research foundations facing closure.
“Brain drain has increased in areas requiring equipment and infrastructure, [and] public universities have restricted the conditions for hosting postgraduate students,” said Dr Zicker. Initiatives to support access to education and jobs for marginalised and underprivileged candidates have also suffered, he continued. “The austerity has reached even the south-east region,” an area known for “its concentration of economic power, resources and scientific capacity”.
Although Brazil’s private sector has traditionally had limited influence over education and research, the privatisation of some public institutions has been openly discussed by ministers as a possible solution to the current higher education “crisis”, said Dr Zicker. This, he added, has “raised concerns [over] the increased inequality of access to education and [the] poor quality of professional training”.
Brazil will hold a presidential election in October.
“The future emphasis on and approaches to higher education and research will now depend on the next government’s priorities,” Dr Zicker said. “So far, there is no clarity on the candidates’ proposed programmes from any side of the spectrum.”
Victor Shiramizu, a PhD student in psychobiology and a postdoctorate fellow at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), said that he felt “totally pessimistic” about his academic career since learning that his Capes funding will likely be cut from August 2019.
“If these cuts happen, I and 200,000 other researchers will be unable to continue [our projects],” he said. “The feeling of instability in science here is worrying for many students and principal investigators.”
He added: “Research fields such as engineering are more likely to get funding from private companies, but psychological sciences depend more on the government funding agencies. My colleagues are looking for opportunities outside Brazil.”