Brazilian Scientists Mobilize as the Government Freezes Half of the Science Budget

Marcha Pela Ciência in São Paulo, Brazil (Photo: Nicholas Correa)

In mid-April, teachers and education workers unions in Brazil called a National Strike of Education Workers for May 15 against the Social Security Reform bill.

In another attack on universities, the new Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, who took office in April 8th, and the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, declared that they were planning to “decentralize” the investments in Social Sciences and Philosophies, a euphemism for federal cuts for funding in Humanities and Social Sciences courses in basic and higher education. A few days later, Mr. Weintraub announced that about 30% of discretionary spending budgets of three federal universities – University of Brasilia, Fluminense Federal University and Federal University of Bahia – would be postponed, allegedly because their teachers and students promoted “balbúrdia” (i.e. racket) with what the government sees as politically partisan activities and because those universities would allegedly have poor performance.

However, those higher education institutions (HEI), as most of the other public ones, actually are among the best universities in Brazil, with some of them being classified amongst the world-class institutions. Since selective cuts based on ideological evaluation could be regarded as illegal, Mr. Weintraub then extended the cuts to all federal universities. This measure could force the federal HEIs to halt all activities: from classes and researches to public services in university hospitals, museums, and psychological and genetic counseling.

Scientists hang up posters in a public square in Uberlândia to protest the cuts and explain the value of their research to society. (Photo by UFU)

Researchers and students at public HEIs were already uneasy with the freezing in the 2019 science budget set before that suspended 42% of funds for scholarships and research. Besides federal issues, there were State-level problems as well. The Minas Gerais State Agency for Research and Development (Fapemig) was struggling with a shrinking budget due to reduction in the fund transference by the State Government and more than 5,000 scholarships were cut off; in the Sao Paulo State, the Legislative Assembly approved the establishment of a Congressional Investigation Committee in order to probe the claims of “misuse of public funding” by the staff of the state universities and against a supposed “leftist rigging of Sao Paulo public universities.” Professors and members of the state student union protested against this move, as it would hurt the autonomy of the public HEIs, though their cries were left unheard.

In this scenario, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) and other scientific associations launched a nationwide initiative to set science advocacy groups to act alongside members of parliament. Since they would have a meeting with congresspeople and the Minister of Science on May 8th and 9th, the SBPC called for backing by the academic and scientific community to pressure the government into withdrawing the decision to freeze the science budget and fundings.

10,000 people attend the march in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro to protest to the cuts to science and public education (Photo: UNE)

By the end of April, the academic community, infuriated by the recent actions taken by the president and the Minister of Education, was making moves to organize demonstrations in many major cities in Brazil. On May 7th, scientists and students in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, rallied against the federal cuts and in defense of Fapemig; in May 8th it was the time for academics in Sao Paulo to outcry, and on the same day there were demonstrations in Niteroi (Rio de Janeiro State); Recife (Pernambuco); Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul); Curitiba (Parana); and Natal (Rio Grande do Norte). Ten of thousands of demonstrators marched for science, the largest rallies since the first acts in 2017.

Over 3000 scientists conduct a sit-in protest outside the office of the Presidency of the Republic in São Paulo (Photo: Dr. Jorge Melendez)

Now, the workers’ movement, aiming to bar the Social Security Reform, and the scientists and students movement, concerned by the cuts and freezing in the funding for Science and Education, are joining forces together for the 15th of May nationwide strike.

But the movement of scientists and students will not stop there. There are already demonstrations scheduled for July 7th, in celebration of the National Science Day and, once more, against the actions taken by governments – in federal and state levels – that are harming the science and education in the country.

Written by organizers:

Roberto Takata – March for Science in Sao Paulo

Laura de Freitas – Nunca vi 1 cientista/University of Sao Paulo

Gustavo Satoru Kajitani – Federal University of Ouro Preto

Mariana Moura – Cientistas Engajados

Daniela Klebis – Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC)