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Science as State Policy – Opinion

The The Brazilian Academy of Sciences published a message With proposals for candidates for the presidency of the Republic. More than just an emergency compilation of recommendations, it is, as the title says, an apology for Science as a State Policy for the Development of Brazil.

Science in the country began late, with the arrival of the court, in 1808. Then the first educational and research institutions were established, such as the National Museum or the Botanical Garden, which were later added by others, such as Vuecruz (1900), Butantan (1901) and the first universities. In the middle of the century, innovative state-owned enterprises – such as Vale (1942), Petrobras (53), Embraer (69) or Embrapa (73) – and management and financing systems – such as CNPq and Capes (51) or Finep (67) appeared – and the system National Postgraduate Studies. The 1988 constitution made use of innovative laws, such as the Legal Framework for Science and Technology (2015).

All of Brazil’s great economic successes – such as agriculture, oil or aviation – are linked to the national scientific ecosystem. Since the creation of the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1985, Brazil’s share of world scientific production has increased from 0.5% to 3.2%.

But this legacy is threatened by the sharp and continuing decline in investments. Within ten years, the union’s investment in education had fallen from 19% to 8%. Investment per student is relatively low in higher education – in basic education it is even more – and 75% of those enrolled are in private, mostly for-profit, low-quality, non-research-oriented institutions. “Brazil needs a revolution in education,” urges the academy, starting with basic education, where the expansion of vacant positions has not been matched by their qualifications.

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Developed countries have, on average, 4,000 researchers per million inhabitants. 900 people in Brazil is few, even compared to Latin America. The average investment by OECD countries in science, technology and innovation (ST&I) is 2.6% of GDP. Those coming from Brazil have already reached the 1.5% limit. Today they do not reach 1%. “40 years ago, Korea and China were behind Brazil: look how they are today,” warned the academy’s president, Helena Nader.

It would be self-evident to say, as the Academy says, that in order to promote social progress “any strategic action in relation to public policies (whether in health, environment, infrastructure, agriculture and supply, labor and employment, among others) must be guided by with the latest scientific knowledge”, if the current government does not do quite the opposite.

The Academy lists three urgent axes: increasing the proportion of GDP invested in ST&I to at least 2% in four years; training researchers to reach 2,000 per million population within ten years; and ensuring the participation of ST&I strategic advisors in the three power bodies, particularly in the executive branch, so that public policies are designed and coordinated on the basis of evidence.

Brazil is rich in land, biomes, water resources, wind and minerals, and its population is still very young. Science is crucial to economically benefiting from these resources and helping the country address major global challenges, such as food insecurity or climate change, for example, diversifying the bioeconomy and agriculture and mitigating their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

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And all the greater is the challenge in the digital age. The European Union and countries such as China and the United States have ambitious plans for sectors such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors and robotics, and if Brazil does not keep pace, the gap in terms of its social and economic standards will increase exponentially.

As the Academy notes, “The effects of the pandemic and the acceleration of climate change have made it clear that future agendas must be green, digital, sustainable and inclusive.” The bridge material to that future has a name – human capital – and the main tool for building it too: science.