RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – In her Rio de Janeiro lab, biologist Michelle Klautau paid for the USD1,400 photo machine, two air conditioning units, most of the chairs and even the paint and tiles from her own pocket.
The professor is one of several Brazilian scientists who warn the sector is teetering on a precipice after losing two-thirds of state funding between 2010 and 2017.
“We are reaching a point where it’s becoming impossible,” said Klautau, who specialises in marine sponges at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “Researchers can’t continue financing research with their salaries.”
The rapid decline in funding – which researchers said has forced them to personally finance projects or see them terminated – parallels de-funding in other areas, notably culture.
“When I saw the National Museum in Rio in flames on the TV I started to cry,” said Professor Luiz Davidovich, a respected physicist and president of the country’s Science Academy, referring to a September 2 blaze that gutted South America’s most important natural history museum.
In UFRJ labs, he said “researchers are paying out of their pocket to buy material or genetically modified mice to do their research into Zika.”
“We are already cutting the number of students in our laboratories, the number of projects, and often the scale of them,” Klautau added.
One of her student assistants, Marcio Franca, pointed out a petty-cash box the team pays into to buy water, coffee and toilet paper.
Brazil has traditionally been a significant player in the science world. It recently inaugurated one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, and regularly sees research published in science journals. The country has also enjoyed growth in several domains thanks to scientific advances – notably in the challenging field of extracting oil from deepwater pre-salt reserves, and in soya production, which has tripled.
“It wasn’t a miracle. It was science,” underlined Professor Davidovich. His own specialty in physics was buoyed by work carried out during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship due to the importance assigned to national security.
Boom years, corresponding with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s 2003-2010 tenure, “were tremendous for science,” he added, with budgets expanded, more university campuses, and research infrastructure created.
But then a record-busting recession hit, while Lula’s protegee Dilma Rousseff was in charge. After her 2016 impeachment, Rousseff’s vice president Michel Temer took over and froze government spending for 20 years, including in the non-priority science sector.
“Brazilian science is under threat from lack of funds,” warned Professor Marcos Farina, at the UFRJ’s biomedical sciences department.
He said that when it rains, water pools in the ceiling over his lab.
“Then water starts dripping on our equipment,” Farina said, showing a Japanese-made epi-fluorescence microscope covered in plastic, like other machines in his lab.
“Each researcher works with love for what they do, but their passion can have a bad side because they do the repairs while that should be the role of the institution,” he said.
He, too, drew a link with the National Museum fire, which had been badly underfunded despite the cultural wealth of its 20 million artifacts.
Klautau said things have become so bad that she thinks regularly about resigning and moving to a post abroad, “like many colleagues”.
“What gives us energy to go on … is the recognition we get from our foreign peers,” she said.
But a Brazil brain drain is a growing phenomenon. Farina said his lab has already lost a teacher and a post-doctoral student, both of whom went to the United States.
Many Brazilian scientists view with trepidation the nomination of Marcos Pontes, an astronaut, as science minister in the incoming government of far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro – who has promised a streamlined administration open to privatisations.
“One of his (Pontes’) first sentences was, ‘I’m going to fight internal enemies,'” said Farina. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
“There are people in this government who think the world is flat and Isaac Newton was a fraud. It’s scary.”