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Brazil’s presidential election could savage its science

One of the two leading candidates has proposed pulling the country out of the Paris climate agreement while the other would seek to boost research funding.

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Women march against the extreme right-wing candidate Bolsonaro in Brazil

People march in a protest against Jair Bolsonaro, one of Brazil’s presidential candidates.Credit: Picture Alliance/Avalon.red

A populist surge from a right-wing presidential candidate in Brazil that is threatening to upend the country’s politics could have huge impacts on research budgets and environmental policies.

Jair Bolsonaro, a controversial former military officer often dubbed the 'Tropical Trump', has outlined plans that would weaken environmental protections and reorganize federal science programmes. He currently holds a slim lead in the polls for the first round of voting in the country's presidential election, scheduled for 7 October.

Years of economic woes and corruption scandals serve as a backdrop to the election. Brazil's federal science budget has declined sharply over nearly a decade, and pro-industry politicians are slowly chipping away at the country's environmental regulations. But the two leading presidential candidates have offered very different visions for addressing these issues, leaving scientists on edge.

Bolsonaro is one of 13 candidates. None of them is likely to win a majority of the votes on 7 October, so the two candidates with the most votes would then head into a run-off election later this month.

The latest polls suggest that Bolsonaro — whose vice-presidential running mate has raised the spectre of military intervention to address political dysfunction — would face off against Fernando Haddad, a former São Paulo mayor. Haddad is the replacement candidate for former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, a popular leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, who was barred from running for president because he is currently in prison on corruption charges.

Silent majority

Bolsonaro, a politician from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, often votes with the conservative rural caucus, which is actively seeking to weaken environmental regulations. He has proposed decentralizing federal science programmes — although it’s unclear how he would do so — and merging the environment ministry with the agriculture, livestock and supply ministry. Bolsonaro has also suggested pulling Brazil out of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

In the Amazon region, scientists say, Bolsonaro is seeking to promote agricultural and industrial expansion at the expense of environmental protections and the rights of indigenous communities.

The message to industry and agriculture seems to be that a Bolsonaro administration would let them do whatever they wanted in the Amazon, says Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of 37 groups focused on climate policy in São Paulo. If he won, it “would be a nightmare”.

Bolsonaro was once considered a long-shot candidate. Until recently, he trailed most of the other main candidates in head-to-head polls analysing a possible runoff election later this month. The latest run-off poll results, however, show Bolsonaro and Haddad tied in a head-to-head contest.

“People say Bolsonaro stands no chance, but who knows,” says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist and former secretary for research and development policy at Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. “I’m really afraid there is a quiet majority in Brazil, and who knows which side they are leaning towards.”

Boosting science

Haddad, on the other hand, has a more mainstream vision for Brazil that emphasizes science, innovation and action on climate and environmental policies. He has promised to promote renewable energies, such as wind and solar, while fighting deforestation and maintaining protections for indigenous territories in the Amazon.

And unlike Bolsonaro, who has called for more private-sector research and development, Haddad has committed to boosting federal spending on science. He has proposed raising the national investment in research and development to 2% of Brazil’s gross domestic product, using a mix of government and private funding. That would bring the country’s science spending in line with many industrialized nations.

It’s unclear how feasible those spending goals are. One wrinkle is that in late 2016, Brazil adopted a constitutional amendment that caps government investments for 20 years, aside from adjustments for inflation.

Any policies that recognize and invest in science and technology would be welcome, says theoretical physicist Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. He notes that after adjusting for inflation, the science ministry’s budget has decreased by roughly two-thirds since 2010, to around 3.4 billion reais (US$860 million).

Uncertain future

The salaries of public university researchers are guaranteed in Brazil. So the science-budget carnage has meant that there is less money for equipment, federal grants, travel, postdoctoral fellowships and support for international collaborations.

Despite the lack of resources and federal support, Davidovich says scientists are pressing on, wherever possible. “Doing research in Brazil now is an act of resistance, and that is what we are doing,” he says.

But although science and technology factor into the campaigns of Bolsonaro and Haddad, it's too soon to tell what might happen after the election.

“The fact that they have science and technology in their programme does not mean it’s going to be important when they become president,” he says. “There is a big difference between what is written, and what is practised.”

Nature 562, 171-172 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06917-w
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 12 October 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bolsonaro had proposed eliminating the science ministry and reorganizing it under the agriculture ministry. The candidate has discussed efforts to decentralize federal science programmes in Brazil, but it's unclear how he would do so. The story has been corrected to reflect this.