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Indicators show a decline in Research and Development in 2020

The pandemic affected private sector investments in Brazil

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The pandemic put constraints on research and development (R&D) in Brazil and reduced its funding, which was already experiencing a downturn. According to the latest edition of the National Science, Technology, and Innovation Indicators, launched in May by the federal government with updated data for 2020 and 2021, investments in R&D fell by 1.21% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019 to 1.14% in 2020; in updated values, the reduction was from R$95.3 billion to R$87.1 billion. The data indicate that this loss of impetus was most keenly felt in corporate expenditure, reduced from R$49.3 billion to R$40.3 billion from one year to the next; there was a slight increase in public spending from R$46 billion to R$46.9 billion between 2019 and 2020. “There was a slowdown in corporate-sector activity during the pandemic, and this is related to the impacts of COVID-19,” says sociologist Marcelo Paiva, an analyst at the Observatory of Science, Technology, and Innovation at the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (OCTI/CGEE).

This sharp decline raises doubts among specialists familiar with these analyses. “It’s difficult to understand how there can be such a variation. From 0.53% of GDP in 2018, corporate spending on R&D rose to 0.58% in 2019 and fell to 0.53% again in 2020. This doesn’t normally happen from one year to the next,” says Renato Pedrosa, FAPESP advisor in the area of Science, Technology, and Innovation Indicators, and researcher at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP). Pedrosa believes that this fluctuation may result from a lack of updated data from the Innovation Survey (PINTEC), last conducted in 2017 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Spending on R&D is a measure of a country’s efforts to stimulate development, and involves a set of activities conducted by companies, universities, and other scientific institutions, including basic and applied research results, new product launches, and training of researchers and qualified professionals. In current values (not deducting inflation), federal government R&D disbursements increased from R$29 billion in 2019 to R$32.7 billion in 2020, notably investments by the Ministries of Health (R$3 billion in 2020 against R$1.9 billion in 2019) and of Science, Technology, and Innovation (rising from R$5.3 billion to R$8.1 billion), who focused their spending on investigating and tackling COVID-19. However, there was decreased R&D spending across ministries such as Education (from R$17.9 billion to R$17.7 billion) and Agriculture (from R$3.8 billion to R$3.4 billion).

Investments made by individual states remained steady: they reached a total of R$14.1 billion in current values in 2020, practically the same as 2019, a shortfall from the R$17 billion recorded for 2018. Certain states managed to increase their investments, such as Paraná (from R$960 million to R$1.2 billion from one year to the next). Others lost momentum, such as Minas Gerais (a drop from R$293 million to R$248 million). São Paulo increased slightly, from R$9.1 billion to R$9.2 billion.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

In absolute terms, scientific output grew in Brazil from 82,700 articles published in 2019 to 89,200 in 2020, and then 94,500 in 2021, according to data from the Scopus base, remaining in 13th place in the country rankings, with 2.7% of global yield. “Comparatively speaking, Brazil holds an intermediate position among the BRICS group [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa], with growth rates well below those of China and India, but exceeding those of Russia and South Africa,” says Paiva, who evaluated, in a recent OCTI/CGEE bulletin, Brazilian scientific output according to another database, Web of Science.

“Our output has grown less than that of countries that opted for expressive funding of science. If we do not resume investments, the tendency is that we will get farther and farther behind,” says Mariana Moura, director of the Department for Strategic Management and Indicators at the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI), responsible for annual compilation and dissemination of National Indicators. “The pandemic alone does not explain this downturn in the system — the reduction in investments over recent years is also cause for concern,” she states, referring to the budget cuts and innovation funding restrictions occurring since the middle of the last decade.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The most evident impact of the pandemic appears in the statistics on postgraduation in Brazil, with a downturn in the number of doctorates awarded (from 24,400 in 2019 to just over 20,000 in 2020 and 2021), and a decline in master’s degrees as well. Renato Pedrosa observes that this decline, as far as can be seen from the statistics, is not due to students avoiding postgraduate courses (see Data). “The number of master’s and doctorates awarded fell, but numbers of students enrolled on the corresponding courses increased in equal proportion, a sign that this may merely have been due to postponement of dissertation and thesis defenses due to the pandemic,” he concludes.

Various indicators, even presenting fluctuations, suggest that the science and technology system in Brazil is resilient. In 2020 there were 27,100 patent applications in the country, a slight reduction against the four preceding years, but well below levels seen prior to the economic crisis of the last decade (33,000 applications were filed in 2015). Even the corporate investment reduction in R&D was repeated per preceding years in the background series — in Brazil, unlike in developed countries, public spending normally exceeds private. “The truth is that unfortunately, Brazilian corporations have always invested little in research and development, and this situation remains unchanged,” says Soraya Smaili, ex-Dean of the Federal University of São Paulo and coordinator of Instituto Sou Ciência (“I am Science Institute”), a center for science and higher-education studies.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Background series analysis enables certain transformations to be observed. Smaili draws attention to a change in the profile of human resources qualified by postgraduate programs: the increase in the number of PhDs was uneven across different knowledge areas. In engineering, the contingent of awarded PhDs more than doubled between 2000 and 2021 from close to 800 to 2,000 per year. This progress, however, was behind that of areas such as the health or human sciences. “The total number of engineers is a relevant indicator for the development of any country, and Brazil’s difficulties in this area deserve further analysis,” says Smaili.

The Science, Technology, and Innovation Indicators provide a comprehensive diagnosis of performance among public institutions and companies, and professionals engaged in research activities in the country. One of the sizeable difficulties in compiling the last survey was the lack of some primary data, which was not produced or collated, but essential for providing updated statistics.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

The most serious example is related to the PINTEC, which the IBGE used to release every three years as a reference to demonstrate the efforts of innovative Brazilian companies. The last PINTEC was published in 2020 with data from between 2015 and 2017; no company data has been compiled since then. “PINTEC is paramount to understanding the dynamics of corporate investment in R&D, and its discontinuation presents a challenge to our technicians,” explains Mariana Moura of MCTI.

Moura states that in the absence of updated data, the solution is to run extrapolations based on older references. “The IBGE suggestion was to gather information on companies that used mechanisms to incentivize innovation, such as the IT Law (Lei de Informática) and the Lei do Bem, a set of tax incentives for R&D to boost innovation and use it to recalculate corporate R&D investments based on data from the last available PINTEC. The issue is that, as time passes, this basis point becomes less representative,” she explains.

Alexandre Affonso/Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

IBGE is trialing a new methodology to produce a new survey on corporate innovation twice a year — the six-monthly PINTEC — but its sample base is smaller, with fewer parameters evaluated. “The six-monthly PINTEC does not replace the wide-ranging triennial PINTEC survey, needed to generate comparable, international-level data,” states the MCTI director.

The lack of information compromises other indicators, such as active Brazilian researchers. One database that used to be updated every two or three years — the Directory of Research Groups, of the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) — stopped collating information in 2014. “We want to streamline collaboration with those responsible for data surveys in other agencies, such as CNPq, FINEP [Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects], and CGEE, to produce accurate metrics,” says Mariana Moura.