How the country fostered research and innovation through scientific investment – and what happened when it disinvested.
At the time, I was visiting the country as a physics Ph.D. student, and I was struck by the enthusiastic optimism of the Brazilian researchers I met. Backed by increased government investment in science, they felt they were part of Brazil’s long-term transformation into a scientific and technological powerhouse, and a budding international hub of innovation.
Times have certainly changed.
Since 2014, Brazil has gone through a recession and a dramatic shift in governance that has led to a brutal devaluing of science and education. Funding for public universities and research institutes has been slashed by 90 percent. Laboratories have closed, scholarship funding has been cut, and young researchers have fled the country to pursue professional opportunities elsewhere. When I returned in 2021, the optimism I had initially seen was largely gone.
Brazilians recently voted out far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018 and whose administration spearheaded many of the cuts to scientific funding, in favor of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who previously served as president between 2003 and 2010. Lula’s election has restored some cautious optimism to the scientific community in Brazil, who hope that, despite challenging economic circumstances and sociopolitical obstacles, he will reinvest in science.
Whether that happens remains to be seen. But Brazil offers other countries a case study on why scientific investment matters — and the consequences when it’s deprioritized.
Before 2014, Brazil was investing heavily in education, research, technology, and innovation that touched all levels of society. Social programs incentivized poorer families to educate their children while state-funded programs offered students hundreds of thousands of new scholarships for private higher education institutions. The public university system was also broadened to less developed parts of Brazil, with 16 new federal universities established between 2003 and 2014. A pursuit of higher education and a scientific career in Brazil seemed more accessible than ever before.
The investment appeared to be paying off. Research and innovation across the scientific spectrum expanded, while a new crop of young Brazilians trained to advance science, technology, and environmental protection. Public-private partnerships fostered large fundamental research endeavors like the Sirius Synchrotron particle accelerator, and a real-time satellite monitoring system was curbing deforestation in the Amazon.
Maybe the most illustrative example of Brazil’s erstwhile optimism was the fourth National Conference on Science, Technology, and Innovation for Sustainable Development, which was held in Brasilia, the country’s capital, the same year of my first visit. I didn’t attend, but the former president of Brazil’s Academy of Sciences, physicist Luiz Davidovich, who helped coordinate the conference, told me about the buzz around Brazil’s growing influence and potential. “It was an amazing conference, multidisciplinary and inclusive of all sectors of society,” he said.
Brazil was also becoming increasingly connected to the global scientific community. Government-funded programs like Science Without Borders helped send tens of thousands of young Brazilian scientists abroad, while more foreign scientists, such as myself, came to Brazil to collaborate.
From those first visits — where I collaborated with other physicists and met scientists from a range of disciplines — I came to see Brazilian researchers as important long-term partners for working on regional multidisciplinary and intercultural projects, for example research and initiatives on decentralized energy and water quality monitoring for off-grid communities.
But a complex combination of an economic downturn, a massive corruption scandal, fiscal conservatism policies, and anti-scientific populist rhetoric has led to Brazil’s pronounced and shortsighted shift towards disinvesting and devaluing science — and has made such collaborations far more difficult. Widespread disinformation has also catapulted anti-scientific ideologies into the mainstream in Brazil, and large portions of Brazilian society now distrust science and education.
The socioecological consequences of disinvesting and undermining science are profound. In addition to impairing university and laboratory infrastructure, the continued funding cuts to research and higher education institutions put Brazil at risk of losing an entire generation of scientific talent.
Physicist Marcelo Knobel explained to me that due to severely limited opportunities for pursuing careers at home, young researchers are leaving Brazil in a massive brain drain that jeopardizes the country’s potential to innovate and build technological prowess both in Brazil and beyond. Lost scholarships have the greatest impact on the poorest students as well, further breeding societal inequities.
Meanwhile millions of students are losing an interest in education and science, something that Davidovich calls an “internal brain drain.” Paulo Artaxo, an environmental physicist at São Paulo University, explained the situation to me this way: “The lost funds make work very difficult, but the lost minds make it nearly impossible.”
These effects have global ramifications, as the bioculturally diverse Brazilian Amazon — one of our strongest assets in the fight against climate change — has been a notable victim of Brazil’s recent anti-scientific, anti-Indigenous, and pro-agribusiness policy and rhetoric.
An illustrative example came in 2019 when the then-director of Brazil’s space agency, INPE, plasma physicist Ricardo Galvão, was forced to defend his agency’s internationally respected deforestation monitoring and alert system, DETER, against anti-scientific slander. Between 2004 and 2012, Galvão told me, the system helped lower deforestation rates by around 80 percent. But in recent years the agency has been defunded and obstructed, and deforestation has skyrocketed. (Bolsonaro fired Galvão after his impassioned defense.)
As INPE’s previous success helps show, investing in science and technology is critical to the Amazon’s long-term survival. This investment clearly cannot depend solely on fickle governments and variable funding. The stakes are far too high.
Alternative pathways to funding scientific research are needed. For example, Brazilian Earth system scientist Carlos Nobre is currently working with international partners, including MIT and Fraunhofer Institute, to pioneer the plurinational Amazonia Institute of Technology in order to reduce dependence on government funding while furthering biodiversity-driven research and innovation in the region for its long-term survival. Such endeavors benefit us all. The world depends on the Amazon rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide now more than ever.
In facing global challenges, science should take an expansive view, and include not only the natural sciences, but also data-driven social sciences, holistic ecological and complex systems sciences, as well as the robust knowledge systems of traditional peoples.
Science can be a common language of interdisciplinary and intercultural dialogue that can foster understanding and innovation, and address a multitude of complex socioecological issues that our increasingly divided world is facing.
Anti-scientific rhetoric and misinformation, on the other hand, breeds a polarized environment where reality becomes subjective and science is categorically mistrusted and devalued. This in turn makes it easier to confuse, disinterest or even foster hostility towards science, to discredit scientists, and to allow governments to defund research and innovation. This destructive process has overtly played out over the last four years in Brazil under Bolsonaro, as it has in many other parts of the world, including, of course, the United States.
While it is true that the present anti-scientific trends across the world have been driven in large part by extreme right-wing political factions like Bolsonaro’s, the left also contains progressive and populist factions that seem increasingly disinterested with evidence. Science should be a unifying pillar and inherently nonpartisan.
An informed and scientifically literate society must demand sustainable development based on science, with the understanding that science is a dynamic process of truth-seeking that often cannot provide the certainty that politicians and the public crave. Evidence and circumstances evolve, necessitating dialogue and possible changes in policy.
Investment in science is a pillar for any dynamic, equitable modern society. Valuing science at all levels of society can help foster innovation, dialogue, understanding, and consensus that crosses disciplinary and cultural boundaries.
Whether Brazil, the U.S. or any other country defunds, attacks, or ignores science, devaluing research and innovation is detrimental to the long-term well-being of any modern society, as well as for the interconnected global community.
Teaser photo credit: By Neil Palmer/CIAT – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28394053