10 May 2023
The election of Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ‘Lula’, in October 2022, brought a sense of relief and hope to the Brazilian scientific community.
Just over three months into his administration, Lula’s challenging task to fulfill all the promises he made before he came into power became apparent. The populous of Brazil, along with the rest of the world, is watching what happens next.
In the past four years, the country has faced considerable challenges, including budget cuts in science and technology, the spread of misinformation leading to the denial of climate change, anti-vaccine movements, and the use of ineffective drugs against COVID-19, amongst many others.
“Brazil is once again reconciling economic growth with social inclusion. Rebuilding what was destroyed and moving forward. Brazil is once again a country without hunger. While preparing the ground for infrastructure work that was abandoned or ignored by the previous government, Brazil is again taking care of health, education, science and technology, culture, housing and public safety”, declared Lula during the meeting at Brasilia’s Planalto Palace in April.
A group of five renowned scientists share their views and expectations about scientific policies in Brazil, published at Nature Human Behaviour this month.
Mercedes Maria da Cunha Bustamante, biologist, Pedro Gabriel Godinho Delgado, doctor and psychiatrist, Lucas Ferrante, ecologist and researcher, Juliana Hipólito, biologist, and Mariana M. Vale, ecologist, highlight key areas of concern to be addressed by the current government.
Public Health & the Environment
According to Lucas Ferrante, the past government was notable for the prominent role of scientific denialism. Ministers were chosen for their ideology, rather than their technical ability, and scientific advice was simply ignored.
The second catastrophic COVID-19 wave in the Amazon, making Brazil one of the global epicentres for the disease, could have been prevented if the past government had listened to scientific advice.
The absence of a technically oriented government under Jair Bolsonaro’s administration also increased deforestation in the Amazon rainforest at an alarming rate, threatening the environment, traditional and indigenous communities, as well as climate change goals, wrote Ferrante.
He also mentioned that despite the change in government, there’s the need to remember past events.
During Lula’s two previous terms as president (2003-2010), he showed worrying denialistic tendencies, ignoring scientific reports and scientists’ advice. An example of this was the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam disaster, which affected the Xingu River and traditional communities, causing a catastrophic socio environmental impact.
Essential plans should include blocking major infrastructure projects in the Amazon rainforest, such as the reconstruction of BR-319 highway linking Manaus to Porto Velho, which will affect traditional and indigenous communities, biodiversity and increase deforestation in the region, as well as agriculture production chains that could give rise to a new pandemic.
Brazil’s biodiversity is extremely rich, but lacks surveys of viruses circulating in its fauna, therefore a well established surveillance programme is required in order to reduce the risk of new pandemics emerging through viral spillover, declared Mariana M. Vale.
Nísia Trindade, Brazil’s health minister, mentioned during a lower house hearing last month that the country should be gearing up for future pandemics by investing in science, technology and Brazil’s national healthcare system, SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde).
Juliana Hipólito highlighted another significant issue of concern, society’s lost value and interest of science in their daily lives. As a consequence, this lead to an increase in deforestation rates, climate change denialism, anti-vaccine movements and the use of ineffective unproven drugs against COVID-19.
The past government’s dismantling of environmental policies increasing deforestation and the approval of a large number of toxic pesticides is also something the science community expects to be reversed, she added.
According to experts, Brazil’s use of pesticides increased exponentially in the last few years, growing 300,000 tonnes since 2010. Approximately 80% of the pesticides authorised for commercialization in Brazil are prohibited in at least three countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of the European community.
In the field of mental health, Pedro Gabriel Godinho Delgado expects to see development of long-term projects to better understand the interfaces between mental health suffering and the profound social inequality and precariousness of life in Brazil.
According to him, urban violence, racism, stigma, gender prejudice, loss of childhood and adolescence and their relationship with human suffering, should no longer be marginal and must be included amongst the priorities of research. The long-term consequences of COVID-19 on mental and physical health also deserve special attention from researchers.
Investments, Social Justice & Equity
Divestment is an issue of concern, as Brazil’s previous government cut considerably investment in scientific and educational organisations. There was a huge drop in investments in INPE (National Institute for Space Research), INPA (National Institute of Amazonian Research), CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development), and federal universities.
According to Hipólito, budget cuts skyrocket during the past government. Research funding and the budget of leading science and technology funding agencies were reduced by 60% from 2014 to 2022.
Socio-economic conditions have been sacrificed as a result of the cuts, therefore affecting the country’s capacity for the innovation and economic diversification.
Mercedes Maria da Cunha Bustamante mentioned the urgent need to support vulnerable groups (women, the youth and the poorest – most of them people of colour) in Brazil with the demand for public policies that would put the country back on track towards social justice and equity.
Reducing poverty, combating climate change and biodiversity decline are intrinsically connected.
The current administration also needs to focus on improving education from elementary level, adds Bustamante. A similar scenario is seen at public universities, which were affected by budget reductions under the last government. Brazilian public universities account for most of the national scientific production and are major drivers of social inclusion.
It’s essential to increase diversity, she added, as it’s vital for addressing societal demands through the generation of new knowledge, making Brazil attractive again for young scientists and allowing science to have a more prominent role in policy making.
Vale pointed out that white male individuals still dominate Brazilian academia and highlighted the need to strengthen and improve existing policies on diversity, equity and inclusion in science, especially regarding black and indigenous people.
Brazil has seen a massive exodus of scientists, leaving their jobs to work abroad, where their skills are most valued. The current government should set up a development and retention plan, encouraging and supporting scientists across the country.
Although the scientific community remains confident and positive, it’s crucial that they continue to defend science, and that the general population are not deceived into thinking that a change in governance alone is sufficient to bring about the needed improvements in public health and the environment, mentioned Ferrante.
The voice of scientists who dedicate their entire lives to protecting and bettering our daily lives couldn’t be louder and should be heard. Perhaps it’s time for Brazilian society, politicians, institutions and corporations to fully support this community that has been undervalued for so long.