Former Brazilian ministers slam budget cuts to science and technology

A manifesto of 10 previous incumbents warned that drastic reductions in science and technology spending will undermine the country's competitiveness.

A group of 10 former ministers has warned recent cuts in public funding for science and technology in Brazil will undermine the overall development of the national economy as well as the country's international competitiveness.

Funding cuts will see Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications having its funding slashed by almost half this year, down from the original forecast of 5.1 billion reais ($1.32 billion) to 2.1 billion reais ($546 million).

Ministers from various political parties and administrations spanning the last three decades gathered to discuss the risks around the funding reductions, at an event at Coppe, the engineering institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Monday (1).

"The increasingly drastic budget cuts could lead to an unparalleled setback in the history of Brazilian science, an essential and critical area, both for economic and social development and for national sovereignty," stated the letter, read by former minister Marco Antonio Raupp.

"Invariably, developed nations are those that [invest in] scientific knowledge and seek to have their own technology and strengthen their capacity to innovate," the manifesto noted.

At the same event, Coppe's director Edson Watanabe warned the funding reductions could also undermine Brazil's competitiveness, given the recent trade agreement between the Mercosul and the European Union.

Despite all manner of challenges including poor infrastructure, the damning letter, which did not make a direct reference to Jair Bolsonaro's administration, pointed out that Brazil has managed to make important advances around high-tech research in recent years, supporting sectors ranging from oil and gas and agriculture to aerospace and environmental management.

"With considerable effort, we built a body of researchers, particularly within public universities, research centers and companies, who produce cutting-edge work. It was a decades-long and multi-generational work," the letter added.

"As in other countries, the [Brazilian government] has been able to finance and nurture knowledge centers to the point where we have been able to build a national science, technology and innovation system in recent decades."

However, according to the manifesto, the recent funding cuts will mean a major impact on bodies fostering science and technology research such as universities, given that 95 percent of them rely on public funds.

One of the bodies affected by the latest budgetary reductions, the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), has said it only has funds to pay for scholarships until September.

According to numbers gathered by the former ministers, some 6.198 science and technology scholarships awarded to Brazilian researchers have already been suspended.

"We cannot allow the creation of conditions that encourage a brain drain neither the absence of representatives of the scientific community in government councils and committees," the letter states.

Over the last decade, science and technology budgets in Brazil have suffered continued reductions. The country has been investing no more than 1.3 percent of its GDP in the area over the last 15 years.

During his address at the G20 summit last week, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro said his administration has identified "enormous opportunities" related to the digital economy, followed by a somewhat convoluted statement:

"A regulatory framework that stimulates innovation and respect to privacy, as well as freedom of expression online are fundamental to ensure that the digital economy contributes to the wellbeing of our societies and unleash all its potential for innovation and creation," the president said, without making any mentions to planned investments around leveraging the stated potential.

Current science and technology minister, astronaut Marcos Pontes , has made unsuccessful attempts to stop further budgetary reductions in his department and has often been quoted as saying that he regards science and technology resource as an investment rather than spend.