Brazilian science and technology minister faces criticism as budget disappears

The department's resources are being distributed to other areas; the Economy minister complains about priorities and execution.

As the Brazilian government slashes the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) budget, the country's economy minister Paulo Guedes has criticized the department's incumbent and his management of taxpayer money.

During a meeting with the Science and Technology Commission at the Lower House of the Congress aimed at reversing recent MCTI budget cuts, Guedes slammed minister Marcos Pontes and his prioritization in terms of budget use. According to a report on the meeting by Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, the economy minister said he has always supported investment in science, but public funds ended up going towards rockets.

At that point, Guedes used the word "dumb" to describe the MCTI minister, which up until then was described as "the astronaut". In the same context, he complained that incompetence is rife in the administration of public resources and that execution is lacking across many government departments.

The controversy emerges amid pressure from science and technology organizations seeking to revert a 600 million reais ($108 million) cut from the MCTI's budget. The spending reduction, announced earlier this month, will see the science and technology settlement distributed across other departments such as housing and education.

The move represents a 99% reduction in the MCTI budget for science and technology projects. With the decision, the department was left with 7.2 million reais ($1.3 million) to spend on those initiatives in 2022.

Brazil has a history of reducing budgets for science and technology, and the MCTI has seen its resources dwindle consistently in the last decade. However, the difference in funding over recent years is stark: in 2015, the country's spending in science and tech was 1.4 billion reais ($250 million). Next year, the department will have a budget of 89.8 million reais ($16.2 million). 

According to local reports, one of the motives behind the decision is the low levels of commitment of resources from the National Science and Technology Development Fund: by the end of September, only 40% of the resources of the fund -- around 370 million reais ($66.8 million) -- had been used.

Caught by surprise with the announcement of the cuts, Pontes criticized the move publicly, describing the cuts as "mistaken and illogical".

The new cuts impacted research projects and grants already provided by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). In an appeal to the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, a group of science and technology entities called on politicians to reverse the decision.

The group described the move as "a hard blow for science and innovation, which harms national development" and that the "survival of science and innovation in Brazil is at stake". Further protests against the department's budget cuts are taking place today (27).

The latest budgetary reductions follow a resource cut for the MCTI, announced in May. The reductions announced at the time saw the ministry undergoing the most severe cut in the country's public spending for 2021.