The research funding scam

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By MEGHIE RODRIGUES*

Years of funding cuts have been hard to swallow for researchers in Brazil

The Brazilian scientific community is stunned by yet another blow to research funding. On October 15, President Jair Bolsonaro signed a law that sent BRL 600 million to the country's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation for various other areas of government. The promise of money at the beginning of the year led Brazil's main science funding agency to launch its first “Universal Call” for proposals to support research since 2018. Now, the 8.000 research proposals submitted face an uncertain future.

Years of funding cuts have been hard to swallow for researchers in Brazil. The country's main scientific agencies and funds received just 4,4 billion reais last year, about a third of what they received in 2015, when funding peaked at 14 billion reais. Adjusted for inflation, this is the lowest investment in research since 2004.

Researchers are demoralized by the last-minute loss of funds pledged for this year. “The whole situation is depressing,” says Patricia Endo, a computer scientist at the University of Pernambuco in Caruaru, who is part of a team that submitted a proposal through Universal Call to apply artificial intelligence to the study of maternal health. "If it weren't for my family, I would have left the country already."

One meter of support

The money pledged for research would come from a special fund for industrial innovation and research, called the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FNDCT). Taxes collected from industrial sectors such as biotechnology and energy are the main source of funds for the fund. Each year, part of the FNDCT funds is accounted for in the science budget, says Paulo Almeida, executive director of the Questão de Ciência Institute in São Paulo. “But the political criteria for allocating resources mostly keep them frozen, being distributed only with the approval by Congress of specific bills that release the funds”, he says.

This year, around 690 million reais would be added to scientific funding, 655 million of which would come from the FNDCT to support the National Institutes of Science and Technology and programs such as the Universal Call.

In early October, however, the Ministry of Economy asked for a redistribution of the promised money. Instead of going to science and technology, the Ministry proposed that it be distributed among areas such as infrastructure, agriculture, health and education and taken from a 2020 government financial surplus. The Ministry of Science will only receive just over 7 million reais, and the National Nuclear Energy Commission will receive more than 82 million reais to pay for the production of radiopharmaceuticals. These drugs are used to treat people with cancer, and their production in Brazil was stopped last month due to lack of funding.

For former science minister Sergio Rezende, the amount the government releases annually from the FNDCT is a thermometer that measures its support for science. “Science has no value for the current government,” he says.

assimilating

The biggest punch in the stomach for researchers is the uncertainty that now surrounds Universal Call, which largely funds research in areas ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities. Originally, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), the main Brazilian science funding agency, planned to use 200 million reais of the promised money to grant grants to researchers through the call. Due to the scarcity of resources, a Universal Call has not been launched since 2018.

Thousands of research proposals involving more than 30.000 scientists appeared when this year's call opened. Now, the scientists await the results – to be released in November – not knowing if there is any possibility of funding.

“It took me some time to try and assimilate the news,” says Luisa Viegas, a biologist at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceió, who proposed a three-year project to study how climate change threatens the existence of amphibians and reptiles in Brazil.

“We mobilized a lot of effort and energy to design the project together”, she says, noting that the project would involve 30 researchers from Brazil and the United States. “Now, we are thinking of submitting it to international funders, but it will not be so easy because it is specific to Brazil”.

When asked by Nature why it prioritized other areas over science to receive the funds, the Ministry of Economy of Brazil responded by email that it was not solely responsible for the change. “The change was decided by the government, with the support of the Budget Committee”.

In its request to redirect funds, the Ministry of Economy highlighted that the Ministry of Science had not yet used all the money available in its 2021 budget.

For physicist Ildeu Moreira of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, former president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, the redirection of funds is the latest of the Bolsonaro government's anti-science maneuvers. “It's a deliberate dismantling of science,” he says.

But some have not lost hope. Evaldo Vilela, president of the CNPq, says that there is a new law under discussion that will try to recover the lost funding. Support has been gained from politicians from various parties, and if it passes quickly, he says, "we may yet have the Universal Call for this year."

*Meghie Rodrigues, jjournalist specializing in scientific coverage, is a doctoral student at the Department of Scientific and Technological Policy (DPCT) at the Institute of Geosciences at the State University of Campinas (IG-UNICAMP).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the magazine Nature.

 

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