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Brazil’s budget cuts threaten more than 80,000 science scholarships

If the country’s main science-funding agency doesn’t get more cash soon, young researchers will stop getting paid.

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Thousands of people took to the streets of Brazil's capital, Brasilia, to protest education budget cuts.

Students in Brazil's capital protest the government's move to slash funding for education and science earlier this year.Credit: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty

Brazil’s main science-funding agency will have to suspend more than 80,000 scholarships to postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students starting in September unless it receives additional cash from the government.

The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) announced the impending cancellations on 15 August. CNPq also won’t be offering new scholarships, according to the statement. Brazil’s government hasn’t released the 330 million reais (US$89 million) that it froze in CNPq’s budget as part of broader spending cuts in March. If President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration doesn’t release some of the money soon, CNPq’s scholarship fund will run out of cash by next month.

“Government is jeopardizing the future of a whole generation of Brazilian scientists,” says Paulo Artaxo, a physicist at the University of São Paulo. Cancelling the scholarships will have a devastating impact on Brazilian science, which depends on these young researchers, he says.

Not supporting students in research programmes “is like shooting oneself in the foot”, says Alexander Turra, an oceanographer at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo.

A matter of survival

Biologist Nicole Malinconico is one of many graduate students who might have to leave research if the CNPq scholarships fall through. She moved to São Paulo in January and has applied to the doctorate programme at the Oceanographic Institute.

“Now, even if I enter the doctorate [programme], without the scholarship I won’t be able to keep myself in São Paulo,” says Malinconico. She plans to apply for a scholarship offered by the São Paulo Research Foundation, a local science-funding agency. But the competition for alternative sources of money has grown stiff, she says. Malinconico fears that she will have to give up her research career to look for a job outside of academia, as many of her friends are doing.

“For many students, a scholarship is much more than research support, it is a salary that they use to live, to eat, and to pay their bills,” says Daniel Martins-de-Souza, a biochemist at the University of Campinas in Brazil. Without that support, lots of researchers will be out of work, which could shift Brazil’s overall unemployment figures, he says.

The Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, based in São Paulo, along with 97 other research and academic institutions in the country, launched an online petition on 13 August demanding that the government help CNPq meet its funding commitments. As of 19 August, it has more than 270,000 signatures.

Going backwards

Researchers in Brazil have been working under a cloud of uncertainty since March, when Bolsonaro’s administration announced that it would freeze 42% of the budget of the science and communications ministry (MCTIC). This included the freeze in the budget of CNPq, which is an agency within the MCTIC. Around that time, the government also announced that it would cut 30% of the funds that it gives to federal universities.

Many researchers left Brazil for better situations abroad, while others who stayed have struggled to keep their laboratories functioning.

“Science is walking backwards in Brazil,” says Marcos Buckeridge, the director of the National Institute of Bioethanol Science and Technology. The institute includes 31 laboratories in 5 Brazilian states that develop technology to produce biofuels using materials such as plants or animal waste. He fears that if CNPq stops funding student and postdoctoral scholarships, in the next few months the institute won’t have enough researchers to run experiments.

CNPq and MCTIC are in negotiations with the Ministry of Economy for more money by the end of the year so that the agency can support scholarships, says CNPq spokesperson Mariana Galiza de Oliveira. But it’s unclear whether the agency will receive the money in time to avoid an interruption to payments for current scholarship holders, she says.

Nature 572, 575-576 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02484-w

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