Brazil researchers hit as science spending drops

Pascale Trouillaud –
In her Rio de Janeiro lab, biologist Michelle Klautau paid for the $1,400 photo machine, two air-conditioning units, most of the chairs and even the paint and tiles from her own pocket. The professor is one of several Brazilian scientists who warn the sector is teetering on a precipice after losing two-thirds of state funding between 2010 and 2017.
“We are reaching a point where it’s becoming impossible,” said Klautau, who specializes in marine sponges at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
“Researchers can’t continue financing research with their salaries,” she said. The rapid decline in funding parallels de-funding in other areas, notably culture.
“When I saw the National Museum in Rio in flames on the TV I started to cry,” said Professor Luiz Davidovich, a respected physicist and president of the country’s Science Academy, referring to a September 2 blaze that gutted South America’s most important natural history museum. In UFRJ labs, he said “researchers are paying out of their pocket to buy material or genetically modified mice to do their research into Zika.”
“We are already cutting the number of students in our laboratories, the number of projects, and often the scale of them,” Klautau added.
One of her student assistants, Marcio Franca, pointed out a petty-cash box the team pays into to buy water, coffee and toilet paper.
Brazil has traditionally been a significant player in the science world. It recently inaugurated one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, and regularly sees research published in science journals.
“Brazilian science is under threat from lack of funds,” warned Professor Marcos Farina, at the UFRJ’s biomedical sciences department. He says that when it rains, water pools in the ceiling over his lab. “Then water starts dripping on our equipment,” Farina said.
Klautau said things have become so bad that she thinks regularly about resigning and moving to a post abroad, “like many colleagues.”
But a Brazil brain-drain is a growing phenomenon. Farina said his lab has already lost a teacher and a post-doctoral student, both of whom went to the United States.
Many Brazilian scientists view with trepidation the nomination of Marcos Pontes, an astronaut, as science minister in the incoming government of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. “One of his (Pontes’) first sentences was, ‘I’m going to fight internal enemies,’” said Farina. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.” — AFP