04 August 2021 10:06
Barbara Gomes has almost finished her doctorate in biomedicine at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Ufrj), one of the best in Brazil. Jobs are in short supply and the best she could find is a job as a substitute teacher at the university, paid around four thousand reals ($ 760) a month. For his experiments on a protein linked to mad cow disease, however, he needs reagents that the university cannot always afford and that cost more than his salary. As a result, Gomes, like many of his colleagues, wants to leave Brazil. His plan to move to France was ruined by the pandemic. But when he has finished his doctorate he will leave: “If I want to work in science, I have to leave the country”.
Emigration from Brazil to the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been growing for years, but exploded in 2017, with an increase of 24 percent compared to the previous year. About 30 percent of all Brazilians living in OECD countries have a university degree. In the past two years, applications for a permanent visa submitted by Brazilian skilled workers to enter the United States, the main destination for those leaving Brazil, have grown by 30 percent, reaching the highest levels of at least the last decade.
The exodus is largely the result of the post-recession economic instability of 2014-2016. But it has been compounded by populist president Jair Bolsonaro, who views academics as enemies. Its guru, Olavo de Carvalho, has declared that Brazilian universities are a den of drugs, orgies and communist propaganda. The budget of the federal agency that funds science has been nearly halved since 2000, as the government invests a lot of money in getting members of the military, often Bolsonaro’s supporters, to go to study abroad.
In 2015, Brazil had overtaken countries like Russia and Mexico in spending on science, technology and innovation
The UFRJ has enough money to remain active only until September. After this date it may have to close laboratories and limit some online teaching courses. At least six professors who criticized the president’s actions during the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 540 Brazilian people in the country, have been investigated by the government.
“Living in a country where there are daily attacks on science is very disheartening,” says Ana Carneiro, a professor who studies the Brazilian diaspora at Unicamp, a university in the state of São Paulo. But this is not new. During the dictatorship of 1964-1985, of which Bolsonaro is a nostalgic, academics were among the thousands of exiles. The military government had a slogan: “Brazil: love it or leave it”.
After starting to cut the costs of the burdensome public pension system in 2019, Bolsonaro gave up on pursuing the economic reforms needed to return to growth. The country was still recovering from the recession when the pandemic hit. With just 17 percent of Brazilians fully vaccinated, economic normality still appears to be a long way off. Despite a generous public financial aid program in 2020, poverty has tripled. GDP in the first quarter exceeded expectations, but Brazil still has to deal with unemployment at 14.7 percent, the highest ever. Half of the young people say they would like to leave the country if they could.
Budgets torn apart
The days when Brazil offered young researchers the most attractive prospects are not far off. Between 2003 and 2016, the governments of the Workers’ Party (PT), led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and then by Dilma Rousseff, had created 18 new universities (some as branches of existing institutions). In 2015, Brazil had overtaken countries like Russia and Mexico in spending on science, technology and innovation.
But even in the days when Brazil was investing in education, there were some unexpected events. The Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science Without Borders) program, launched in 2011 by Rousseff, sent nearly 100,000 Brazilians to study in more than thirty countries over the span of six years. But when they returned home they found no policies aimed at them, says Carneiro. When the program was still running, a quarter of those who had received a grant said they wanted to pursue a career outside Brazil.
By exporting scientists and their innovations, Brazil is losing the ability to build a technological weight within it. More than a quarter of GDP still comes from agriculture. Scholarship cuts initiated by Rousseff’s successor Michel Temer intensified with Bolsonaro. After the management of the economy during Rousseff’s presidency led to recession, the new public universities have seen their balance sheets torn apart. The Federal University of Cariri, in the state of Ceará, in the poor northeast of the country, was founded in 2013 but has lost more than 80 percent of its government research funds in the past four years.
The foreign ministry recently established a program called innovation diplomacy, in an effort to strengthen ties between Brazilians abroad and their country, to strengthen trade and investment at home. But its goals are not well defined. And it is likely that many of those planning to leave will remain abroad until the situation in Brazil improves. “I wish I didn’t have to leave,” says Gomes. “But there is nothing for me here.”
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)
This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.