Leia matéria de Herton Escobar para a Science, publicada em 7/4:
Last week, scientists at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), Brazil’s lead agency for studying and managing the nation’s vast protected areas, had to start abiding by an unwelcome new rule. It gives one of ICMBio’s top officials the authority to review all “manuscripts, texts and scientific compilations” before they are published.
Researchers fear President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, which has a markedly hostile relationship with Brazil’s scientific community, will use the reviews to censor studies that conflict with its ongoing efforts to weaken environmental protections. The administration says that is not the intent. But the move adds to recent developments that have rattled many Brazilian scientists and left those who are critical of Bolsonaro’s policies fearing for their jobs and even their physical safety.
“Science is being attacked on several fronts,” says Philip Fearnside [full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences – BAC], a veteran ecologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). “There is denial of the pandemic, denial of climate change, denial of deforestation; not to mention budget cuts.”
Bolsonaro’s grievances with scientists date back to the start of his administration in 2019. Then, he accused the National Institute for Space Research of “lying” about satellite data showing increased deforestation in the Amazon and fired its director, physicist Ricardo Galvão [full member of BAC], after he defended the numbers. Since then, Bolsonaro has clashed with researchers over issues including his persistent rejection of science-based strategies for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 330,000 Brazilians. But the relationship appears to have entered an even tenser phase in recent months.
One example came in February, when Brazil’s top anticorruption agency, the Office of the Comptroller General, informed epidemiologist Pedro Hallal [ex-BAC affiliated member, from 2008 to 2013], former rector of the Federal University of Pelotas, that he could lose his job because of criticism he leveled at Bolsonaro in January during an online event. Hallal, who coordinates Brazil’s largest COVID-19 epidemiology research project, had called Bolsonaro “despicable,” citing the president’s antivaccination rhetoric and his political interference in the selection of university rectors.
Just weeks earlier, Bolsonaro’s education ministry had ordered the rectors of all 69 federal universities, which employ most Brazilian scientists, to “prevent and punish political-partisan acts” by employees. After an outcry, the ministry last month withdrew the order, and Hallal ultimately reached a settlement with the comptroller’s office, promising not to “promote expression of appreciation or disapproval in the workplace” for 2 years.
Hallal remains defiant. “If the idea was to silence me, I have to say it backfired,” he says. “It’s motivating me to be even more critical and say what needs to be said.” But he fears the political climate is silencing some of his colleagues. “A lot of people are saying less than they would like to, for fear of retaliation.”
Scientists are also reconsidering what they study and publish, says Marcus Lacerda [ex BAC affiliated member, from 2012 to 2016], an infectious disease specialist with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. Last year, he faced intense inquiries from federal prosecutors—and received death threats—after he published work highlighting the health risks of giving the drug chloroquine to COVID-19 patients. (Bolsonaro heavily promoted chloroquine despite studies concluding it is ineffective against COVID-19.) “A lot of people are afraid to publish after what happened to me,” Lacerda says. Colleagues have abandoned coronavirus research, he adds, in order to avoid online harassment by what is known as Bolsonaro’s “digital militia.”
Brazilian scientists are also facing a deepening funding crisis. Government spending on research has shrunk by more than 70% from a 2014 peak, and the Bolsonaro administration recently cut 34% from the science ministry’s investment budget for this year. The country’s top federal funding agency, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, is expected to have less than $4 million available for research grants this year.
The funding troubles and constant conflict are wearing down Brazilian researchers, says Mercedes Bustamante [full member of BAC], an ecologist at the University of Brasilia and co-founder of the Science and Society Coalition, a group created in 2019 to promote science-based policies. “I am so exhausted of having to defend myself all the time,” she says. “Meanwhile, all the important issues that we really should be tackling are being left behind.”
Most Brazilian scientists “are not accustomed to functioning in such a hostile environment,” adds Atila Iamarino, a microbiologist and prominent science communicator. “They are trained to argue with facts, but that’s not what matters most in these situations.”