Why We Can't Follow Brazil's Lead In Slashing Science Funding : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Scientists worldwide have watched Brazil's budget cuts in shock. We, too, could see trouble ahead if flat U.S. federal spending without additional corporate funding continues, says Marcelo Gleiser.
NPR logo Brazil's Deep Cuts To Science Funding Will Lock Country In The Past

Brazil's Deep Cuts To Science Funding Will Lock Country In The Past

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Cuts to science funding in Brazil should be a warning to others, including the U.S., says Marcelo Gleiser.
monsitj/Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a Brazilian-born scientist, it pains me to witness the devastating cuts — and proposal of future additional reductions — to the country's science funding.

The cut of 44 percent in March brought the 2017 budget for Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications the lowest level in 12 years. Additional cuts of about 16 percent have been proposed for the 2018 budget.

The situation is so dire that science centers may have difficulty paying their electricity bills and, of course, personnel will be cut. This is happening in a country that just a few years ago was one of the fastest-growing in the world.

Could something like this happen here?

In 2013, and for the first time since the post-WWII era, government funding for basic research fell below 50 percent in the U.S; by 2015 it was at 44 percent. While a U.S. federal budget has yet to be approved for 2018, it looks like flat funding may continue, rather than deep cuts initially proposed. The House passed a spending bill that the Senate has until the end of the year to approve. But should the trend of flat federal spending without corporate funding catching up continue, we could see trouble up ahead.

The scientific community worldwide has watched what happened in Brazil in shock. A letter signed by 23 Nobel laureates addressed to President Michel Temer warned that the cuts will seriously impact present and future research projects, and the scientific community as a whole. How could the government of a country with more than 200 million people, with a land mass larger than the continental U.S., do such a thing in 2017? Isn't it obvious that the present and future of a nation's competitiveness in the global economic scenario depends in essential ways on its scientific production?

Looking at the numbers and their consequences, the government's plan seems to be to dismantle scientific productivity, making sure that the future of the country is firmly anchored in its past: a country that has an economy focused mostly on agricultural and mineral exploits, and not on the emergent new economy based on digital technologies and automation.

It is true that there is great cutting-edge science in agriculture and mining, and Brazil's Petrobrás, the giant oil company, is a world leader in deep-water exploration. But I'm speaking here of companies like Google, Tesla, SpaceX, Apple, Amazon, Samsung, LG — of technologies that are redefining our collective future and redefining the way we live, share information and communicate with one another. We see this every day, in our dependency on smart phones — extensions of who we are — and through the creation of jobs that didn't exist a few years back, and the extinction of many jobs now and in the near future. What will happen to the millions of truck and bus drivers a few years from now, when self-driven vehicles take to the roads?

There is a dimension of economics that is very similar to Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, where the survival of the fittest is through better adaptation; the key difference is that, instead of random mutations at the genetic level, what we have in economics are mutations engineered by the technological cutting-edge. Those left behind, unable to accompany and compete with the new trends in the job market, become extinct.

Cuts in the scientific budget have an impact that those who perpetrate them don't understand. Complex projects, that take years to get going and to begin to render results, are compromised or abandoned. Funding continuity is vital. One can slice a country's budgetary pie in many different ways; and the ways which a government chooses to do so reflect their present and future intentions in very transparent ways.

There is also the educational impact of such cuts.

What kind of example do we give to the young, aspiring scientists that see their future life-plans shattered? In Brazil, they simply quit the scientific path, and the country risks losing a whole generation of experts. And what of those who know nothing about science, and that will remain ignorant due to the government's shortsightedness?

I think of South Korea, a country that after the Korean War in 1953 was one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita income of $64 U.S., behind the Republic of Congo. Investments from the U.S. and Japan, and a focus on science education and on training professionals in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) areas, changed the country completely. The South Koreans understood that to become competitive in the international market they had to create a first-class community of scientists and engineers. The result is what we see today, with giant corporations like Samsung, LG, Kia and Hyundai, threatening American competitors.

What can Brazilian scientists do? They can fight against this retrograde vision, bringing science to the schools, to their communities, educating the general population to vote in leaders that understand the crucial importance of science for a country. They can, following the example of scientists in the developed world, forge stronger connections with industry and private ventures, to increase their independence from federal funding sources.

This is a necessity there and, frankly, a need here as well, as the future of basic science funding grows uncertain with Washington's unstable current climate.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser