Creationist appointed to lead Brazilian sector agency

New Capes president promoted teaching of ‘intelligent design’ as head of private religious university

February 1, 2020
Source: iStock

The choice of a creationist to lead the agency that regulates postgraduate degrees in Brazil is further evidence of the government’s assault on science and universities, academics have said.

Jair Bolsonaro’s administration appointed Benedito Guimarães Aguiar Neto president of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) agency at the end of January.

Mr Aguiar Neto is a former rector of Mackenzie Presbyterian University, a private religious institution in São Paulo, where he promoted the teaching of “intelligent design”. He has regularly talked of his belief in creationism and disbelief in evolution, according to Brazilian media.

Brazilian academics told Times Higher Education that the announcement was the latest in a series of attacks on science, research and education since Mr Bolsonaro became president last year.

His government has already made large funding cuts to federal universities and has halved the Ministry of Science’s budget. An earlier appointment – of Abraham Weintraub as education minister – was also badly received. The right-wing economist has been widely ridiculed for a series of gaffes on Twitter.

Mr Aguiar Neto will lead Capes, a federal government agency under the Ministry of Education, which oversees quality assurance in undergraduate and postgraduate institutions and awards postgraduate grants to students at universities and research centres.

“It is not a secret here in Brazil that Bolsonaro was elected with great support from Christian/evangelical conservative churches. The problem is that Bolsonaro does not respect secularism in governmental decisions,” said Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo.

She added that Mr Aguiar Neto’s background at a private, Presbyterian university also demonstrated the government’s preference for private universities over the public system, even though public universities undertake 95 per cent of Brazil’s research.

Jefferson Cardia Simões, professor of glaciology and polar geography at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, agreed that Brazil’s scientific community was “discouraged” by the appointment but said he hoped that Mr Aguiar Neto would know how to “separate religious beliefs from science”.

“I hope he realises that our advances in various areas of knowledge, from medicine to the search for oil and gas resources, are based on the theory of evolution,” he said.

Antonio Marques, professor of biodiversity at the University of São Paulo, said the problem was not Mr Aguiar Neto’s religious background but rather the government’s placing someone “who clearly believes in pseudoscience and has promoted anti-science actions in a position to manage the future and decide the direction of the nation’s science”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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