Tech by VICE

Why Brazil's New President Has Scientists Really Worried

Michel Temer is not giving scientists the support they’ve been waiting for.

by Ankita Rao
May 31 2016, 10:00am

Temer with reporters. Photo: Michel Temer/Flickr

Brazil, as you might know, has a lot going on. The country is battling the Zika virus, preparing for the summer Olympics, and adjusting to interim President Michel Temer, who replaced former President Dilma Rousseff earlier this month after she was charged with illegally manipulating finances.

One group Temer has decidedly not won over is scientists.

While Temer is meant to be an antidote to Rousseff's alleged corruption, his road to the office was met with thousands of protesters who said he threatened social programs and progressive values. His cabinet is all white and male in a multi-ethnic country, and his new budget plan cracks down on several ministries, including education and women's rights.

Just a few weeks into his term, Temer also decided to combine the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation with the Ministry of Communications to make a sort of "superministry."

"I've never seen the universities go through this amount of poverty—you don't have toilet paper and soap in some labs."

That move, scientists say, makes their field low on the political priority list. Thirteen scientific associations sent Temer a letter on May 11 warning the merger would set them back, according to science journal, Nature. To make matters even more complicated, Brazil has seen three science ministers in the past year and a half. One of them, Aldo Rebelo, was a climate change skeptic.

These changes come at a time when Brazil's research community is already struggling to survive years of federal budget cuts to their work. Rousseff's last 2016 budget had allotted 24 percent less to the ministry of science than the year before.

But São Paulo-based cancer researcher Dr. Jose Emilio Fehr Pereira Lopes said he doesn't think it's the interim government's job to fix the problem. He said science has not been a priority in Brazilian culture, or politics, for years.

"This is not because of Michel Temer's government," he said. "I've never seen the universities go through this amount of poverty—you don't have toilet paper and soap in some labs."

Lopes himself is a victim of Brazil's science funding gaps. When he was studying at the National Foundation of Ecology in the state of São Paulo, he found a molecule that could help in treating cancer like melanoma. But he couldn't find any funding in his own country to continue his research.

He found support in the United States. The Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School invited Lopes to the country and funded his research to develop and test the molecule. Then he worked with a group of investors in New York to create a startup, Nanocare Technologies, to further his findings.

"I am watching a 'diaspora' as our largest scientists move to other countries," he said. "I myself needed to leave my country to obtain credibility and ability to complete a project in science."

Lopes said that huge oversight is catching up with the country—from Zika to academia. But he said the political turmoil in the country has made people much more aware of who they choose to put in office.

"Brazilians are waking up to the real necessity of see who you're putting there," he said.

Meanwhile, the molecule he discovered will belong to the United States.