Academic researchers in São Paulo, Brazil’s richest and most populous state, warn that a bill before the state parliament could paralyze large universities and long-term research projects. The state is home to three of the most prestigious universities in Latin America and produces 40% of Brazilian scientific publications.
The bill, which could be voted on as early as this week, aims to avoid a projected deficit of 10.4 billion reais ($ 1.9 billion) in the São Paulo 2021 budget, largely due to the COVID 19 pandemic. A provision stipulates that the state’s three major academic institutions – the University of São Paulo (USP), the University of Campinas (Unicamp), and the São Paulo State University – transfer money to their long-term reserve accounts with the state government. The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), a government agency that finances research and grants, would also have to give up its reserves. Researchers estimate that the accounts collectively contain more than 1 billion reais.
The move has sparked an outcry among researchers, who find that the reserve funds have helped universities and the foundation cope with economic challenges and pay for long-term projects. In its current form, the bill will “paralyze all scientific activities in the state of São Paulo,” warned the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in one letter. And it would cause “irreversible damage” to ongoing research said the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science in a statement. More than 110,000 people have signed Online petition issued by the São Paulo Science Academy against the law.
“We’d have to close some [research] Areas we would have difficulties paying salaries, ”says Marcelo Knobel, Chancellor of Unicamp. “That would be an unprecedented situation.”
However, a government spokesman said in a statement that “the budget adjustment will neither paralyze research nor lead to a lack of funding for research funded by the Foundation”. “Science has the full support of the state government. The bill provides for surplus funds not earmarked for research projects or earmarked spending to be used to address a current problem, namely the need to pay officials, including teachers of these institutions themselves, with the sharp drop in revenue caused by the pandemic . … Certainly it is not fair for the poorest population to be cared for without the aid of medication or health care, while universities and FAPESP may have excess cash. ”
University and foundation officials say the loss of the reserve fund would pose two problems. For one thing, it would affect their ability to use the funds to cover budget deficits in lean years. Each of the institutions receives a fixed share of the state’s tax revenue, but Brazil’s troubled economy has made that income stream less reliable in recent years. Unicamp, for example, had to dig into its reserves for each of the last 6 years for the past 6 years to cover operating costs, says Knobel.
At the research foundation, the loss of its reserve could jeopardize the funds already committed for multi-year projects. The foundation usually supports projects with a duration of two to eleven years. However, researchers do not receive all of the upfront funding; the money is paid out in installments. As a result, much of its reserves are already earmarked for future expenses.
Proponents of the legislation say the foundation’s reserve fund is “in excess, but that’s not true,” says Mayana Zatz, a USP geneticist. Much of this money is “already committed”.
Zatz and others say the foundation’s reserve also enabled it to respond quickly to requests for funding for investigating emerging issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the previous Zika virus outbreak. And the foundation has been a lifeline for researchers in São Paulo in recent years as the federal government has reduced spending on science. The federal research budget has fallen by around half since 2014, and last year was Brazil’s largest science funding agency forced to suspend 4,500 new research grants.
Last week, the chancellors of the three state universities met with members of the government to discuss the proposal. However, according to a, they failed to convince state officials to exclude universities from the bill Note released after the meeting.
Now the researchers hope that their public campaign will convince the congregation to reject the proposal. But they are careful. “Unfortunately most of them [lawmakers] have little understanding of how science works, so it’s worrying, ”says Ohara Augusto, chemist at USP and coordinator of a large FAPESP research project. In particular, she fears that passing the bill could end decades of progress in building scientific excellence in Brazil. “Things were going well. … They weren’t perfect, but we had hope, ”she says. “But now this bill could bury our hope.”