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Brazilian scientists fight for cut of oil royalties

Senate passes bill that would slash research funding.

Brazilian Senators did not include funding for science and education in their plan for the country's oil royalties. Credit: Photo by Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil

Last week, as Brazil celebrated its 8th annual National Week of Science and Technology, the country's government dampened scientists' hopes for a guaranteed cut of oil royalties for science, technology, innovation and education.

The bill laying out plans for dividing up royalties from recently discovered oil fields passed the Senate on 19 October. It did not include setting aside any of the government's royalties for research and education, as has been the case in previous arrangements. Revenues from the oil, discovered off the coast of Brazil in 2006 and known as 'pre-salt' for the sediment layer in which it is found, are expected to reach more than R$80 billion (US$45 billion) annually by 2020. Brazil's lower house, or Chamber of Deputies, must now vote on the bill before it goes to the president to be signed into law.

The cost of cuts

If the bill becomes law, the biggest loser would be CT-Petro, Brazil's largest research fund. The fund, started in 1998 to stimulate innovation in the fields of oil and natural gas, would miss out on an estimated R$12.2 billion by 2020, a 72% drop in revenue.

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, director of the Foundation for Research Support of the State of São Paulo (FAPESP), says the approval by the Senate was a major blow to science and technology funding in Brazil. "It starts the dismantling of a funding system that was created in 1998 that has been bringing excellent results in science and technology in Brazil," he says.

The move did not come as a complete surprise — in 2010, then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva vetoed a similar amendment that stripped out science funding from the royalty agreement. The science and education communities have been rallying to defend their cut of the money since then. In early September, as the Senate vote neared, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences launched a petition calling for 7% of the royalties to go to science funding, and 30% to education. To date, it has garnered more than 27,000 signatures — far from its goal of one million.

Helena Nader, president of the SBPC, says that past investments in education, science and technology enabled the country to find the pre-salt petroleum in the first place. She has written to members of Congress, asking the Chamber of Deputies to "reverse the lack of commitment to the future of the nation".

"Investing in science and technology is betting on the future of the country," Nader says. "When the money from the oil is gone, you get revenue that comes from education, science and technology."

Mixed signals

But Congress and the media have been distracted by other aspects of the new bill, under which the federal government and oil-rich states will see their share of oil royalties cut, with non-oil-producing states and municipalities gaining more money. The debate sparked by this controversial move has overshadowed requests for earmarks.

The science and education communities wonder whether research funding is a priority for the government. President Dilma Rousseff has voiced her support for more science and education funding since coming to power at the beginning of this year, and has launched ambitious new programmes, such as Science Without Borders, which hopes to send 75,000 students abroad by the end of 2014. But, Nader says, "The tone the president has in her speeches does not match government decisions and laws being voted on. It's a little bit schizophrenic." Brazil's science and technology budget suffered its first cut in eight years in 2011.

But after attending a congressional meeting in September and hearing the Minister of Science and Technology speak there, Celso Pinto de Melo of the Federal University of Pernambuco is confident that the budget will stay the same for the time being. "I'm very optimistic about science in Brazil in the next few years," he says. "But we have to keep our fingers crossed."


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Gardner, E. Brazilian scientists fight for cut of oil royalties. Nature (2011).

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