Two texts, one op-ed and one open letter published in Science magazine assess the consequences of the fire at the Brazilian National Museum (Museu Nacional) and expose the need for investing in Brazilian science

The most important scientific journal in the world devoted some of its pages for an op-ed signed by Brazilian scientist and professor Beatriz Barbuy, from the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP). The text was inspired by the tragic National Museum fire in Rio de Janeiro, and it shows a critical look over Brazilian politics regarding investments in science and technology.

“It has been a tragic reminder [National Museum fire] to Brazil and to the rest of the world of how important it is for societies to support the institutions and endeavors that preserve and promote science and culture. This devastating event should serve as a harsh wake-up call for Brazil to bolster, rather than neglect, its scientific enterprise,” said Barbuy in the article.

Barbuy is an astrophysicist with qualification at USP, a Doctorate and Post-doc at French and North American Institutions. Awarded in 2009 by Unesco – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – and elected by magazine Época one of the 100 most influential Brazilian personalities, she said that the 2018 elections were a great opportunity for Brazil to prioritize science.

In her article, the scientist states that the country’s financial crisis has been the reason for a steady decline in science support. She cites the Brazilian membership suspension from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) as the greatest example. Located in Atacama Desert, Chile, it’s the largest and most capable observatory in the world. In 2010, the ESO approved the plan offered by the Brazilian federal government to pay € 270 million over the course of ten years to integrate researchers; however, nothing has been paid.

“Not surprisingly, Brazilian astronomers have been frustrated by Brazil’s lack of commitment to science and technology. Now, this community is seeing its work, and Brazil’s investment, strangled,” she argued in the text.

Extremely Large Telescope, maior telescópio do European Southern Observtory (ESO). Crédito: L. Calçada/ESO

Investment cut

Barbuy also criticized the federal government’s decreasing cuts in the budget for the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication (MCTIC): the amount injected into the cabinet in 2018 is only 40% (inflation-adjusted) of the budget for the same Ministry in 2010 – with the aggravating factor of the Brazilian currency devaluation against the dollar. In 2018, a letter of protest against budget cuts for science was signed by 56 Brazilian scientific societies and submitted to the federal government.

“The problem is that research and its supporting infrastructure are largely dependent on government support. Funds for research projects necessarily come from the MCTIC and state agencies such as the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP),” explained the scientist.

“There is also a problematic misperception in Brazil that science and technology have little impact on the economy,” she criticized. The USP professor mentions the League of Research Universities in Europe as an example of good policies in science development, delivering the output of intensive researches by generating approximately €100 billion in gross value, as well as 1.3 million jobs.

Science also published the UFRJ letter

In the same edition, Science magazine published the open letter signed by 21 researchers from various institutions: 12 of them from the UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), plus 9 North-American institutions. The manifesto’s theme is the Brazilian National Museum fire.

In the text, scientists justified that the extensive museum natural history collection, collected for more than 2 centuries, documented changes in identity, culture and language since the first South American inhabitants. “The magnitude of such loss is staggering – not just for Brazil, but for the world,” they said.

“Scientific advancement is based on building blocks from the past and, without those components, scientists are left without points of reference. Museum collections are the foundation on which we recognize cultural and scientific novelty, as we strive to understand and better the human condition, to advance our grasp of how nature’s pieces came into being and fit together, and even to predict the ecological and evolutionary future of the planet’s biodiversity,” states the text.

The letter points out that the September 2 tragedy is a metaphor for Brazil’s science current status and part of a historical series of culture and science-related accidents in the country, such as the 2015 fires at the Butantã Institute in 2010, and at the Museum of the Portuguese Language, both in São Paulo.

“Museum collections are timeless national treasures that represent our histories, cultures and scientific accomplishments. Every institution and government should reflect and take heed at this sad moment. We must invest in and safeguard our museums and collections for the benefit of science and society worldwide,” asserts the document.

Content published in November 7, 2018

See also