A place for Brazil in the democratization of science?



Reflections on the rescue of the cognitive aspects of national sovereignty

“I am not a machine, I am not an animal, I am René Descartes, with the grace of God. By knowing this, I will be whole. It was I who made this forest: get out of it, bridges, fountains and improvements, buggy tours and Batavian villages”. (Paulo Leminski. catatau).[I]

The approach of the presidential elections, cherishing yearnings for the country's reconstruction, encourages me to resume a discussion started in 2019 in an Adunicamp Special Bulletin on neoliberalism. The text, reproduced on the website the earth is round, deals with threats, direct or indirect, to the integrity of the human and social sciences in Brazil and in the world. In it, I defended the view that the sponsors of the 2016 coup aimed to overthrow national sovereignty not only in its most obvious aspects, such as the energy matrix, but also in other, less salient and equally important aspects, such as science infrastructure, technology and higher education.

In effect, the legal-media-parliamentary coup undermined the consolidation of the BRICS as a geopolitical bloc, thus making a possible joint project to overcome the scientific and technological hegemony of the US-European Union bloc unfeasible. The imperialists knew that our public universities were able to carry out – and perhaps even lead – the renewal of indigenous ideas and scientific and technological innovation, thanks to their recent successful experiences of social inclusion and their solid teaching tradition. and research in the humanities and social sciences.

In 2019, no one imagined that, soon after, a pandemic would make this scenario even more disheartening. Nevertheless, today, two years later, we have already acquired enough perspective to detect a contradiction as surprising as it is promising, namely: if, on the one hand, Covid 19 strengthened the colonial tools of control and domination, on the other, it expanded and diversified the scope of reflections on decolonization.

Currently, two groups of voices that, before, only sang in the collective health niche, resound synchronously in multiple forums. On the one hand, there are philosophers and/or human scientists immersed in the analysis of the conjuncture; on the other, there are scientists and/or health professionals immersed in the theory or practice of disease control, prevention and/or treatment. Numerous artists also collaborate, whose interventions, vocal or not, reiterate and enliven the shared motto, namely: the unrestrained increase in inequality exponentially accelerates the risk of extinction of our species.

As taught by Anibal Quijano,[ii] coloniality is at the root of the paths taken by capitalism to lead to this tragic prognosis. Before, the Frankfurt School[iii] had already taught us that science and technology grew and prospered immersed in the various phases of capitalist ideology. Thus, if, on the one hand, it is encouraging to find pockets of resistance, on the other hand, it must be admitted that its organization is precarious and its self-criticism, incipient.

In a set of four brief essays, to be posted separately, I intend to raise some points that seem useful to me for reflection on the rescue of the cognitive aspects of national sovereignty. It is simply – of course – a persistent reflection on the issue outlined above. Nothing that is considered here should be read as a proposal. It is, rather, an effort to bring together the themes that have most called my attention since 2013, as the signs of the coup spread.

The first of the aforementioned essays is this one, which addresses the historical link between science and utopia, and its connotations on the right and the left.

The second essay will address the current recurrence of movements for the democratization of science – heterogeneous, contradictory, depoliticized and, as expected, originating in rich countries.

The third essay will make an overview of the conditions and possible ways to decolonize science and technology in Brazil (and, perhaps, in the world), in view of the exiguity and precariousness of the experiences available until now.

The last essay will address the need to launch, soon, a collective methodical discussion of the reconstruction of the science, technology and education system, in order to deepen and diversify the issues already raised by some progressive academics.


A utopia? But which?

In his narrative of the imaginary state of utopia,[iv] Thomas More launched the idea that applications of natural science can produce extraordinary social progress. In the following century, Francis Bacon, in his novel New Atlantis,[v] departed from the same idea to describe a mysterious island in the Pacific where science had a prominent place. It is worth noting that the notion of the impossible underlies both reports. The term utopia, coined by More from the Greek, means 'nowhere'. Similarly, the title New Atlantis makes explicit reference to the legend of the sunken continent.

In bourgeois society, it is natural that the idea of ​​utopia was more successful on the right than on the left. Impossible dreams have an obvious commercial appeal. On the other hand, among combatants of inequality, it is strategic to bet on the possibility of victorious struggles.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos,[vi] in an article dedicated to Erik Olin Wright, an early deceased American Marxist sociologist, he subverts this logic, developing, in the light of his own work, an antithetical notion proposed by his colleague, namely: “real utopias”.[vii]

Reviewing the damage that the nature/society dualism, in force since Descartes, causes to the environment and, therefore, to life and humanity, the sociologist advocates a plurality of utopian projects that have in common the fact that they are based on knowledge born of struggle.

The struggle in question is that of the excluded of all degrees – especially the most extreme ones. In the last degree, which the author places “below the abyssal line”, are the millions of people relegated to servants or slaves in the four corners of the planet. Boaventura is peremptory in stating that there will not be full humanity as long as there is even one person considered sub-human by the hegemonic society, which he characterizes as patriarchal, capitalist and colonialist.

In order not to oversimplify Boaventura's thought, we should add that the border between the oppressor and the oppressed is not linear. In a recent article on the decolonization of history,[viii] he states that the struggle concerns a “mental and practical dissidence that involves disidentification with the oppressor and disloyalty towards his objectives of domination”.[ix] It is evident that this dissent is gradient. Consider the behavior of the working class in the 2018 Brazilian elections.

The foregoing must have been enough to raise some questions that deserve collective discussion in Brazil today. For example, we have enough social scientists capable of mapping at least some of our abyssal pockets. They will certainly also be able to organize and launch the necessary debates on priority public policies in these strongholds.

In a first approximation, the question is: what public policies could subsidize the reduction of the misery of the occupants of the abyssal zone? I dare not answer, because I have never worked on the subject. However, I would like to follow the debates and perhaps even participate in them. I dare, therefore, to offer an opinion on what such policies should not be.

First, I think that they should not be paternalistic – neither on the part of the government nor on the part of the intelligentsia. That the government knows how to avoid welfare. That intellectuals know how to respect the initiatives of leaders of excluded communities of all degrees.

Second, I think that debates should not feed expectations of short-term results. It is evident that, in one or two presidential terms, results can only be obtained with regard to the people that Boaventura places in the “metropolitan zone”, that is, in spaces regulated by a merely formal notion of equality – that is, the ghettos, the slums, slums, occupations, encampments; finally, the periphery in general. In these strongholds, there is a partial inclusion resulting from ongoing struggles, namely: against racism, against sexism, against educational apartheid, against LGBT+phobias, etc.

It should be remembered that Brazil has already produced many respectable studies on violence – whether against nature and its guardian peoples, or against inhabitants of the countryside or metropolitan regions. The authors of these studies must be able to design public policies that combat crimes against “victims of abyssal exclusion”, in Boaventura's happy expression. I suppose that only the decriminalization of these people – combined with a reduction in crimes against them – could pave the way for the full recognition of their rights.

The goals of those excluded from the metropolitan area are achievable in the near future, mediated by the public, free, quality and socially referenced university – the utopian dream of the progressive academy – which it is now up to us to defend tooth and nail.

However, due to repeated attacks on education, science and technology by coup governments, there is no way to assess the degree of adherence to this dream in each of the country's public universities. Therefore, I will try to argue by example.

As the rector of UFBA João Carlos Salles states,[X] “we can find or invent the path by which the sacredness of the university space is recovered. Certainly, not through a return to elitist measures, but through the very understanding of its role as a space for the expansion of rights, good and efficient management of resources, quality academic production and the constant exercise of universal values ​​of humanity. We must, through this path of production and formation of socially referenced knowledge, recover the feeling that the University is not a space of privileges, but a privileged place in itself, where vocation and profession meet”.

UFBA, where the author is ending his second term, set an example of resistance to attacks on science and the public university perpetrated by coup governments. It was in this spirit that three new teaching and research units were created, namely: the Institute of Computing; the Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation; and the Multidisciplinary Institute of Health Rehabilitation. It was also in this spirit that the pandemic was managed; that ties with social movements have deepened; that the evaluations of the courses by INEP and CAPES were successful, as well as in the evaluations of the internationalization programs by PrInt CAPES. It was also in this spirit that emblematic engagement events were hosted, such as: the 2018 World Social Forum; the 2019 UNE Culture Biennial; and the historic UFBA Congress 75 years, held in December 2021.

While UFBA and other combative universities, such as UFRJ and UFMG, illustrated the resistance and potential for social and cognitive innovation of public, free, quality and socially referenced universities, the federal system of higher education, composed of 69 universities , assembled at ANDIFES, was beginning to be dismantled. Of the 22 deans appointed by the current president, none was the first on the triple list based on consultation with the community – with some of them being completely outside the consultation. It is not surprising, therefore, that six of these imposed leaders had the nerve to leave ANDIFES to form a parallel association.

It is urgent, therefore, that we discuss the fight against the rigging of public universities by the extreme right. The STF has already decided that the current legislation does not allow appeal against appointments contrary to the democratic choices of university communities. Thus, a first step towards the utopia of the university for all is up to progressive jurists, namely: suggesting possible changes to the law that guarantee respect for the will of the community in choosing the rector. The rest is up to parliament. In it we already have, in addition to those from the progressive elite, some graduates of the public, free, quality and socially referenced university – whose number, we hope, should grow after the October election.

As for academics in general, the first step towards this utopia seems to be the task, not at all trivial, of awakening, in the short term, a generalized rebellion against authoritarianism in the university. It should be noted that, in this case, this is not a “real utopia” in the sense of Wright and Boaventura. We rely only on our own critical awareness and that of the excluded who have already entered the academy, either as students, or as teaching or technical-administrative staff.

It is possible that, in addition to trade unions and professional associations, our institutions will house new collectives that point us to new paths. It is also possible that we have poets and other artists, residents or not, to inspire us. But let us not fail, ourselves, to contribute to the organization of the necessary protests – and to attend the consequent public events.

* Eleonora Albano is a professor of phonetics and phonology at the Institute of Language Studies at Unicamp. She is the author, among other books, of The audible gesture: phonology as pragmatics (Cortez).



[I] The book is an experimental fiction about the delusions that contact with Brazil would have caused René Descartes, if he had arrived here as a member of Maurício de Nassau's cultural mission.

[ii] Anibal Quijano. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla, 2000v. 1(3): 533-580.

[iii] Let us remember that, in One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse addressed the contradiction between the creative side of human nature and its subjection to the rationality of science and technology, which reduces diverse behaviors to a universal system of thought. already the title Science and Technology as Ideology, by Jürgen Habermas, directly expresses his thesis on the alienation and reification produced by scientific-technological thinking.

[iv] Thomas More. Utopia, Book II, 1516.

[v] Francis Bacon. New Atlantis, 1626.

[vi] Many Brazilian admirers of the author use his first name. I adopted this gesture of respectful affection.

[vii] Boaventura de Souza Santos. The Alternative to Utopia is Myopia. Politics & Society 2020, Vol. 48(4), 567–584.

[viii] Boaventura de Souza Santos. Some theses on decolonizing history. Seminar 743: Editing History.16-24, July 2021.

[ix] Author's translation.

[X] Joao Carlos Salles. Public university and democracy. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020, pp. 88-89.

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