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In defense of science

Party leaders propose research funding as a means to overcome economic crisis

Facsimile of the article "A base do progresso" (The foundation of progress), published in the November 5 edition of the newspaper O Globo and signed by the House Speaker and 21 party leaders

As a result of interactions between scientific organizations, congressmen, and senators from different points of the political spectrum, the article “A base do progresso” (The foundation of progress) was published on November 5, 2019, in the newspaper O Globo. Signed by Rodrigo Maia (DEM-RJ), House Speaker, as well as 21 other party leaders, the article argues that investments in science, technology, and education are crucial to economic development and should be seen as a solution to the country’s current crisis.

To support this argument, the article points out that, before 1990, Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was superior to that of China, who nowadays is an economic competitor to the United States. The authors argue that this new reality was made possible due to China’s investment in science and technology (S&T). Today, China invests 10 times more than Brazil in this area. The article also criticizes the federal government’s attempts to limit spending on S&T and education because of the economic crisis. More specifically, budget cuts for the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES)—an institution linked to the Ministry of Education (MEC) and which supports the country’s graduate programs, through which 95% of Brazil’s research is produced—and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq)—an agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC), responsible for funding scientific research projects and research grants. The congressmen that signed the article refute the proposed merging of the two organizations and emphasize that their roles are complementary and essential for the advancement of national scientific research. The merger has been defended by the federal government on the grounds that unification could save resources.

In the article, the congressmen also draw attention to the risks involving transfer of control of the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects (FINEP) to the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). “The disruption of the R&D [research & development] system ignores the avenues indicated by the global economy,” according to the article, while claiming that the World Economic Forum report released last October reinforces the importance of government investment in scientific research and education.

Gianna Sagazio, director of innovation at the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI), explains that the article was based on a meeting held in Brasília in November, as part of Mobilization for Business Innovation (MEI) activities. Developed 11 years ago, the initiative brings together about 300 of the country’s main business leaders and acts as a forum for dialogue between the business sector, government, academia, and civil society. The meeting was attended by the Speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, Davi Alcolumbre (DEM-AP), as well as about 100 congressmen, 30 senators, and 250 business leaders.

“Brazil is the ninth largest economy in the world and yet it occupies low positions in innovation rankings,” observes Sagazio, who is also responsible for the executive coordination of MEI. “Brazil places poorly in international innovation rankings, which ends up negatively influencing business competitiveness, as well as jeopardizing job creation,” she emphasizes. In this regard, the director of CNI mentions the Global Innovation Index report, which places Brazil in 66th place out of 129 countries. “In the past nine years, our country has dropped 19 positions.” Meanwhile, she points out, more developed countries, such as China, Germany, and Switzerland, have chosen innovation as their main axis of development; in Brazil, investments in research are still considered expenditures. “Businesses don’t innovate by themselves. In order to develop a favorable environment, it is necessary to create an ecosystem and, therefore, we are seeking to expand the dialogue with the Legislative and Executive branches,” she says.

Sagazio explains that the meeting in Brasília took place at the initiative of the cross-party entity Mixed Parliamentary Front for Science, Technology, Research and Innovation. Created in July and made up of 42 senators and 165 congressmen, it defends the importance of investing in research, development, and innovation. “During the third meeting of the front, Senator Izalci Lucas [PSDB-DF], president of the organization, requested a meeting with MEI,” she shares. MEI meetings normally take place in São Paulo, but on that occasion the meeting was held at the CNI headquarters in Brasília. “At the event, we defended the creation of a State innovation policy that presents a long-term vision,” she adds.

Prior to the meeting between MEI and the Parliamentary Front, Luiz Davidovich, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Institute of Physics (IF-UFRJ) and president of the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC), shared that different scientific entities have organized meetings with congressmen to address the importance of investing in science. “At these meetings, I pointed out how, in 2018, United States president Donald Trump sent the US Congress a budget that foresaw severe cuts in S&T,” he says. Contrary to the Executive’s proposal, congressmen not only canceled the cut, but added US$20 billion to the S&T budget. “At these meetings, we try to show that it is sometimes necessary to contradict the guidelines that come from the Executive,” he states.

Similarly, biomedic Helena Bonciani Nader, from the Federal University of São Paulo School of Medicine (EPM-UNIFESP), honorary president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), points out that the institutionalization project for Brazil’s S, T & I (science, technology, and innovation) system took almost six decades, and today it is in danger of being disrupted. “Without science, no country is economically viable. The average investment in science made by OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] nations represents 2.2% of their GDP, while Brazil invests 1.1% of its GDP,” she states, mentioning that these data were presented to congressmen and senators in more than a dozen meetings between scientific and parliamentary organizations throughout this year. According to Nader, the expectation is that the article published in O Globo will make other political leaders aware of the importance of allocating more resources to the area when putting together the 2020 budget.