Brazilian researchers and students fear impact of ‘brutal’ cuts

Ministers reassure after funding agencies’ warnings of ‘serious impact’ for Brazilian research from cuts, but others see false promises ahead of election

August 18, 2018
Source: Getty

Scientists in Brazil say that they have reached crisis point after government agencies outlined how drastic cuts to public spending could leave hundreds of thousands of researchers and students without funding from next year.

On 10 August, government ministers responded to public warnings from a sector funding agency about the impact of spending reductions by offering assurances that no cuts were scheduled for the country’s higher education scholarship schemes, which currently provide financial support for about 93,000 postgraduates and postdocs, alongside 105,000 teacher-training bursaries.

But others have since warned that current higher education budgets are unsustainable, even without further cuts, and that universities should not be distracted by “empty promises” made by politicians looking ahead to a presidential election in October.

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, said that the possibility of lost funding and cancelled scholarships was still a “real threat”.

“We are in the middle of a presidential election campaign [and] politicians have empty promises…the country has a huge fiscal debt, and there is a need to cut expenditures,” he said.

“The budget reduction is a reality,” he added. “The cuts for research funding have already happened.”

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 cut by 44 per cent, reducing funds to R2.8 billion (£576 million), with further cuts expected.

Tension among the academic community peaked in October last year when sector leaders staged nationwide protests against the cuts to science.

Publishing an open letter to the minister of state for education on 1 August this year, the president of Capes – Brazil’s federal postgraduate funding body operating under the Education Ministry – prompted further alarm among the sector.

Abilio Baeta Neves, Capes president, said in the letter that if the current level of funding is maintained, all 93,000 postgraduate and postdoctoral scholarships funded by the agency would cease from next year, as would the teacher-training bursaries.

“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,” his letter concludes.

On 9 August, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) – the second of Brazil’s two public higher education funding bodies, which falls under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation – followed with a similar announcement.

Maria Neto Borges, the agency’s president, said that with the current projected budget, scholarships would remain funded but no research would be supported.

With Brazil holding a presidential election in October, the university sector has become a victim of unusually high levels of political tension, according to Justin Axel-Berg, an associate researcher in higher education policy at the University of São Paulo.

“What we’re looking at is an intra-governmental conflict between the Ministry of Planning, who set the budget to pass on to other ministries, and the ministries themselves,” he explained. “The government is attempting to cut as brutally as possible to effectively tie the hands of the next government...It’s highly anti-democratic and very worrying for all sectors of the public service.”

A Capes spokesman said that the body had met with education ministers, who confirmed that “there will be no suspension of payment [to] Capes”.

Discussions about “restructuring measures for education at its different levels” were to follow, “as well as the [proposed higher education] budget for next year”, he added.


Print headline: Brazilians fear impact of ‘brutal’ cuts to research and education

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