The weight of the treasury

How Brazil and the United States face up to cuts in funding for science and technology

ANDRÉS SANDOVALScientific communities, both in Brazil and the United States are bemoaning the contingency of having to work with less federal public funds than in 2010, after the announcement of major cuts in investments in science and technology in both countries. In the case of Brazil, the budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT) was around R$ 6.37 billion. Initially, the figure planned for the portfolio was R$ 8.1 billion, but R$ 713 million was cut in parliamentary amendments, which affected mainly digital inclusion projects, and R$ 353 million was cut from the direct budget. A further R$ 610 million of sector funds were blocked to guarantee the resources needed for paying off government debts, an expedient known as fund-blocking. In the package of cuts of R$ 50 billion from the Government budget, justified by the need to comply with fiscal targets and to avoid a rise in inflation, the reduction in the MCT’s budget was R$ 1.7 billion. The National Scientific and Technological Development Fund (FNDCT), an important source of ministerial funding, had 20% of its funds blocked. As a result, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) lost R$ 430 million. The Studies and Projects Funding Agency (Finep), the federal government agency that finances innovation projects from companies and universities, lost R$ 1 billion. The cut interrupts what had been a rising trend in federal expenditure on science. Last year, the MCT’s budget was R$ 6.6 billion. “Our science indicators are expanding and last year for the first time the budget was fully carried out. Such a big cut as this will have consequences that will be felt in the future,”  says the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), Helena Nader. “Young people no longer see science as a profession for the future and we’re losing the opportunity to reverse this perception.”

In the United States, on the other hand, a cut that promised to be dramatic ended up being reduced in an agreement between the government and congressional representatives, thereby saving the research agencies from major sacrifices in the reduction of US$ 38.5 billion in the government budget for 2011, relative to the 2010 level. One proposal approved by Congress in February, but rejected by the Senate, had provided for a much larger general cut of US$ 61 billion that threatened to cause major damage, particularly to basic research. In the end  around 1% in funds was lost to the scientific agencies –  in any event, the largest cut recorded over the last few decades. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are going to receive US$ 30.7 billion, US$ 300 million less than the 2010 level, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) lost US$ 65 million and will receive US$ 6.8 billion. NASA will receive US$ 18.5 billion, US$ 200 million less than in 2010. In all the budget guarantees US$ 66.8 billion in federal spending on science. “In the end it was decided that although it’s important to cut federal spending, it’s necessary to carry on prioritizing research and education,”  Barry Toiv from the Association of North American Universities told Nature. However, with the appetite for cuts the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has, the forecast is that there will be new battles in the budget debates in 2012.

026-029_OrcamentoBR_EUA_Espanha183In the United States, there has been intense public debate about the budget cut and a firm willingness on the part of government to avoid sacrificing science and education. President Barack Obama programmed visits to schools where he took the opportunity to talk against indiscriminate cuts. In Brazil, on the other hand, the cut took scientific entities by surprise. The president of the SBPC, Helena Nader, criticizes the linear character of the cut, which imposes restrictions even on ministerial activities: meetings of  bodies, such as the National Biosafety Technical Committee (CNTBio) and the recently created National Council for the Control of Animal Experimentation (Concea), are no longer held with the frequency they used to be, because of a lack of funds for paying for air tickets and hotel accommodation. Another worrying fact, according to the president of the SBPC, is that so far there has been no meeting of the Infrastructure Fund (CTInfra), a fundamental instrument for renewing laboratories and building facilities. “Unlike the São Paulo state universities, federal universities have no budget and depend a lot on instruments like this to do their research,”  says Ms. Nader, who is a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and a member of the coordination team in FAPESP’s biology area. Helena Nader criticizes the country’s change in direction in scientific and technological policy. “At the end of 2010 I took part in a meeting of the National Science and Technology Council, in which the President of the Republic received a standing ovation because of the expansion in investments in science and technology. A month later came the budget cut and strangely enough the council has not had a meeting since,” she says. The SBPC has already asked for an audience with the Chief of Staff and the Planning Minister to try to reverse the cuts. “We talked to the Minister of Science and Technology, Aloizio Mercadante, and he too is against the cuts,” she says. The minister has already said he is worried about the repercussion of the cuts on the innovation policy and is studying ways of helping Finep with a loan from the National Development Bank (BNDES), and a guarantee from the Treasury. “The BNDES has a portfolio of requests of R$ 2.5 billion, with good projects that technically deserve to be approved. The innovation policy is a priority,”  said the minister, in an interview on the Canal livre program on Bandeirantes TV.

Mathematician, Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, emphasizes the fact that emerging countries that compete directly with Brazil, like China and India, have been increasing their budgets. “They are accelerating a lot and we need to accompany them,” said Palis, who is hopeful that part of the cut, particularly the case of Finep, will be reversed. “It would be a consolation that is restricted to innovation, but very important.”  According to data from the MCT, Brazil’s investment in research and development (R&D) in 2008 was the equivalent of 1.09% of the GDP, compared with the 1.54% of China, while the United States invested 2.77% of its GDP in R&D. The budget of the Ministry of Science in China in 2011 is RMB 24.69 billion [yuan], the equivalent of US$ 3.8 billion, an increase of 14% relative to 2010. The budget for science in India, spread across various ministries, is also planned to be 14% more than in 2010. “The Brics countries, developing countries and countries from all around the world have been investing heavily in science, technology and innovation,” said the director of the National Association of Graduate Students (ANPG), Tamara Naiz. “Brazil cannot keep going in the opposite direction of a global trend.”

If North American science suffered a proportionally smaller cut than Brazilian science, it also benefits from a funding structure that does not overly depend on public funds. “In addition to the North American budget being a lot bigger, researchers receive a lot of funding from companies and philanthropic entities. This is probably due to the fact that they started investing in education in the eighteenth century and we started in the 1930s,” says Helena Nader, from the SBPC. In 2008, the private sector was responsible for 44% of the investments in R&D in Brazil, which, as has been said, reached 1.09% of the GDP. In the United States, companies were responsible for two thirds of the expenditure on R&D, which reached 2.77% of its GDP. It is curious that Brazil has been cited as an example by Barack Obama in debates about budget cuts to justify expansion of investments in energy research. “If anyone doubts the potential of renewable fuels, consider Brazil. There, more than half the vehicles can use two fuels,”  said the North American president in a speech on April 5.