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Inflexible model and budgetary constraints threaten research in Brazil

Inflexible model and budgetary constraints threaten research in Brazil

Reductions in funding for CNPq increases, and researches no longer know if they will have funds at the end of the year

Gabriel de Arruda Castro

Researches who depend on funds for CNPq – the National Technological and Scientific Development Council – began 2019 without knowing if they will have resources by the end of the year. The organ, which provides scholarship funds and all sorts of aids to interns, students of Master’s and Doctor’s degree and professors at universities of the whole country, is undergoing an intense decrease in funds.

In the 2018 budget law, R$ 959 million were destined to CNPq scholarship funds and aids. In this year’s budget, the stipulated figure is R$ 784.7 million, a 22.2 percent drop.

The reduction comes from way earlier: it began during the Dilma administration and went on during Temer’s government. Between 2014 and 2018, the amount spent by CNPq under the rubric “Scientific Development” dropped by 39.5 percent, according to data from Portal Transparência.

To make matters worse, the new government froze 42 percent of the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology, responsible for administering CNPq. Researchers are saying that, under these conditions, their grants will not last until September.

And the fault does not lie on the waste of resources with the administrative apparatus.

Usually, the organ, which is administered by the Ministry of Science and Technology, has managed to evade the partisan rigging which corroded other government organs in the last few years.

There is no significant amount of positions and offices which can be cut without gravely affecting the functioning of the organ. The Council has 500 servers. Even if it was possible to fire half of them – which it isn’t – there would still not be enough money to pay for the amount destined to scholarship grants in 2018.

Besides, the way in which the organ is structured, with committees formed by experts, tends to prevent the money from going down the drain with unmanageable projects.

“CNPq is still one of the most well-managed organs in Brazil. It does not spend excessively, its decisions are based on the committee’s, and it is divided into technical areas,” explains José Roberto Leite, a professor of the Medicine School at the University of Brasília and a former member of the CNPq Biotechnology Chamber.

That does not mean, however, that the current financing model is the only one possible. And, amidst complaints about the lack of money, many researchers suggest changes in the system.

One of the most severe problems caused by CNPq’s financial instability is the lack of long-term projects. Due to the fear of not receiving enough funds, researchers end up choosing less ambitious and smaller-term projects.

“Since the resource stability horizon is extremely short, what happens is that some colleagues tend to propose timid research projects, or even predictable ones, because that gives them the guarantee that they will have funds to finish their work. The system encourages that,” says professor Sérgio Ferreira, of the Biophysics Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

The problem is that, in order to reach scientific discoveries, researches need long periods of dedication, in projects which have a considerable risk of not obtaining the expected results.

Experts say that one way of reducing financial instability would be to give the organ more autonomy. The granting of CNPq resources depends on the Ministry of Science and Technology. When there is a new research project, for instance, CNPq and the researchers do all the proceedings (publishing an official notice, selecting projects, signing contracts, opening accounts) before all resources are transferred to the organ. Only then the CNPq petitions the ministry, which has the prerogative of vetoing the amounts based on the allegation that there are no funds available.

Resistance to the private sector

Another way of circumventing the problem would be to look for other sources of research. In the areas of technology and health, for instance, there is a huge potential for partnerships with the private sector.

In the latest years, the resistance of some universities to such projects seems to be decreasing. Still, there are many bureaucratic obstacles. The resources obtained with the private sector usually pass through university foundations, which often withhold resources due to bureaucracy.

Sérgio Ferreira mentions an example. “I’ve asked for the import of a reagent in August last year. The purchase still hasn’t been made from the manufacturer, in the United States. In this case, the money is available, but I am not able to obtain the material,” he says.

A format praised by researchers is that used in FAPESP, the State of São Paulo Research Aid Foundation. There, the state’s Constitution defines that 1 percent of the State Goods and Service Tax (ICMS) must be destined to the agency, guaranteeing less political interference and more budgetary predictability.

Another modality adopted by FAPESP is ‘co-financing’, in a partnership with private companies. In such cases, the agency usually applies the same volume of resources invested by the partner company. Nowadays, the agency maintains projects in partnerships with companies such as Shell and Peugeot. In all, there are 12 projects with a ten-year deadline, which should mobilize around one billion reais during this period. Half of these resources are funded by the universities, including expenses that would happen anyway – with wages of professors and the use of laboratories, for instance. One fourth comes from FAPESP, and one fourth from the partner company.

Pegging to the ICMS has its risks: when the revenue drops, the volume of funds for research is also reduced. In this case, the law establishes that FAPESP should make use of a trust, created precisely for such emergencies.

FAPESP scientific director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz says that CNPq could adopt a similar system. “I believe that the first priority ought to be ensuring a predictable budget, with guaranteed financing,” he says. He also points out that FAPESP has the autonomy to manage their resources: the state does not usually interfere in the decisions of the agency. Cruz suggests that a similar model might be adopted by the federal government.

During the presidential campaign, president Jair Bolsonaro indicated that he would prioritize exact sciences, instead of humanities. He even considered merging the Ministry of Science and Technology with the Ministry of Education, as a way of encouraging technological development from the universities themselves.

But, more than goodwill, researches need resources. The current budget was approved by the last Congress, and sanctioned by president Jair Bolsonaro. Paulo Guedes’ economic team, which seeks to reduce the size of the state, has won the arm wrestle with the Ministry of Science and Technology so far.

For researchers who depend on CNPq, what is left to do, on an immediate basis, is to demand from the government that it makes sure that resources are not exhausted before the end of the year. “The truth is that Brazil considers technology a cost. Other countries, even during crises – like Japan and Germany in their post-war period – treated such expenses as an investment that would generate money for the country in the long run,” says professor José Roberto Leite.

Mobilization

On May 8 and 9, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) will hold a series of demonstration to protest against the curtailment of 42 percent, in 2019, of MCTIC investment resources, and 21 percent of the Ministry of Education’s. According to the entity, “cuts will hit hard research institutes and universities, and, in an intense way, post-graduation throughout the country.”

A meeting of SBPC representatives with minister Marcos Pontes is scheduled for May 9.