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The S&T budget and beyond

Announced cuts in the 2017 budget of the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications (MCTIC) of approximately 40% in relation to 2016–and of almost 56% compared to 2014–have rallied Brazil’s scientific community.  Some declared it to be the end for Brazilian research while others made light of the cuts or paid them no mind whatsoever.

The reduction in funds for science and technology (S&T) cannot be viewed as good news, but any constructive discussion of the current state of affairs requires a broad assessment, contemplating the full complexity of Brazil’s S&T. At the federal level, funds for the system come not only from the MCTIC, but also from the Ministries of Education, Health, Defense and others.  They are all experiencing some degree of contingency allocation this year, although to a much lesser extent than the MCTIC, which now shares its budget with the communications sector after the two ministries were merged in 2016. States also constitute an important part of the equation by contributing 17% of domestic investment in research & development (R&D) through state universities, institutes and research funding agencies–particularly FAPESP, which accounts for the highest share among all such agencies. Last of all, the private sector accounts for 47% of R&D investment, which, according to the MCTIC, totaled 1.3% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014.

The extensive cover story by S&T Policy Editor Fabrício Marques in this month’s issue paints a picture of Brazil’s system for financing domestic S&T and discusses possible paths for improving the country’s investments in this area within a scenario of cuts in public funding.  Possible solutions include reformulating support mechanisms, such as Sectoral Funds, and significantly increasing private sector participation–a situation made difficult by the current circumstances that feature a shrinking economy and by structural factors such as limited participation by innovation-intense sectors in the composition of GDP. In this respect, the goal set out in the National Science and Technology Strategy released in 2016 that calls for companies and government to invest 2% of GDP in R&D through 2019, will not be reached anytime soon.

In the debate about investments in S&T, one little-discussed point involves improving the quality of the spending. Tools and programs require systematic evaluation, which involves an analysis of national scientific output. The report on page 40 about articles that are delayed in being recognized–cited–presents a study that carries an important reminder. After analyzing 660,000 articles, it was noted that, in the first three years, the likelihood of an innovative paper finding itself among the 1% most frequently cited was lower than the probability ascribed to the rest.  The studies that were highly cited initially tended to become obsolete. Those that had a high degree of novelty accounted for 60% of the articles most cited 15 years after publication.  The conclusion is that despite widely disseminated advocacy of investments in transformative research, the evaluation system focuses mainly on incremental studies. By restricting more popular indicators of impact, which tend to give more weight to immediate repercussions of scientific papers, they run the risk of failing to attribute value to work that may make more solid contributions to the S&T system. A good evaluation system also needs to account for the system’s complexity.