The only private institution whose aim is to fund cutting-edge research in Brazil is facing the greatest upheaval in its short history. The problem, however, is not the lack of funds, but the fact that some of the young science talent it invests in is leaving the country even when funding is guaranteed.
“It’s scary. For me it’s a cry for help,” summarizes the geneticist Hugo Aguilaniu, CEO of the Instituto Serrapilheira based in Rio de Janeiro, whose funds come from an equity fund of R $ 350 million.
“Since 2017, when we started, we’ve only had one fallback. In the past two years we have already had three people who decided to leave and six or seven people who were shocked when they received suggestions. It’s very worrying because we’re talking about people who are leaders in their fields, young people who have just passed competitions. It’s just the kind of person who shouldn’t leave the country. “
Serrapilheira uses international reviewers to select the researchers whose work it will support. The dispute is usually fierce – out of around 2,000 candidates who present themselves annually, just over 20 are selected.
The numbers are relatively small, but the goal is to consider researchers who have the potential to differentiate themselves internationally in science in Brazil. Initially, those who are approved receive an initial grant of R $ 100,000 which can be increased to R $ 1 million and then renewed. Publicly funded research projects that achieve similar values in the country are very rare.
“Serrapilheira was conceived as the icing on the cake in the Brazilian system. The problem is that the cake is over, ”compares Aguilaniu. “We had the illusion that R $ 1 million people were detained. The lack of perspective has melted that. For a scientist, instability is fatal. “
“What motivates me to leave is the lack of stability in some processes in the scientific field,” says Edgard Pimentel, 38, who worked in the mathematics department of PUC-Rio and was funded by the institute in 2019.
“This is reflected in the successive cuts and contingent liabilities affecting the country’s science and technology system. Recently there was talk of a call for grants from CNPq [principal órgão federal de fomento à pesquisa] which only served 13% of qualified demand. This kind of thing breaks the scientific system and creates bottlenecks in the absorption of highly skilled professionals. Science creates wealth and above all improves people’s lives – but it takes time. “
Pimentel is a PhD student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, a research post where he does not have to teach. He says that the departure is initially only temporary and that he would like to return to PUC-Rio and Brazil.
Argentine-born physicist Mario Leandro Aolita, 42, professor at UFRJ, has taken unpaid leave at the Brazilian Federal University and is building his research group in the United Arab Emirates at the Abu Dhabi Institute of Technological Innovation. Although he continues to lead students related to the Serrapilheira project that he left behind in Rio, he believes a return to Brazil is unlikely. In addition to the financial problems affecting research in the country, he points out structural problems such as the precarious physical structure and the need to deal with a lot of administrative work and classes that he will not face in the new institution .
“The political situation in Brazil is terrible, but there is something more fundamental about it and maybe the fact that I am a foreigner enables me to see this more clearly,” says Aolita. “The scientist is generally not valued very much here. The Bolsonaro administration agreed with that of Trump, who also wanted to reduce resources dedicated to research. But in the United States, contrary to what happened here, because there is already an understanding of the importance of science, Congress prevented it. “
Theoretical physicist Rafael Chaves (39), a researcher in the same field as Aolita, the so-called quantum computer (which studies the use of the properties of subatomic particles to perform arithmetic operations), had spent seven years in Spain and Germany (in the second) country, got married and had two children) before joining the International Physics Institute at UFRN in 2016.
He says that the trip to Rio Grande do Norte, in addition to the possibility of quality of life for the family, was motivated by the “anomaly in space-time” of the establishment of the institute, which was created specifically for research, with strong international interaction, including several Nobel Prize winners. “It was a bold, modern proposal and it felt like we could grow together with the institute and create something important from scratch,” he explains.
He said he had received surveys and suggestions from Australia, Chile, Canada and also from the United Arab Emirates like Aolita. It has not yet been decided to leave.
“Without Serrapilheira I would have given up already. It’s not just the lack of investment, it’s the massacre that happened: for many people the professor is a communist, a parasite, and Brazilian research in public institutions is worthless. We thought the pandemic would improve our understanding of the scientific method, but unfortunately the Brazilian public debate is very bad, ”he complains.
Folha consulted SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science) and ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences) about the phenomenon of Brazilian researchers going to institutions abroad. Both groups claim that there are no consolidated surveys on the extent of the problem, although there is a perception that it has worsened in recent years. We are a family business.