The federal government’s denial of the pandemic prompted many Brazilian scientists to take clearer political positions. For the elected President of the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science), Professor of Political Philosophy and Ethics Renato Janine Ribeiro, the response is a natural result of values that have become central to the scientific community, such as concern with ethics, social inclusion and sustainability.
“The fact that the American scientific community is against Trump or the Brazilian scientific community is perplexed by the denial of the federal government or people associated with it is above all an ethical position that can have political consequences, but it is not partisan,” says the USP professor . Janine Ribeiro, 71, was elected by SBPC members for a two-year term in a record-breaking election – nearly 2,000 voters, or 60% of the active membership.
The first priority of the agency’s new board will be to “save what can be saved” in the face of the national science funding crisis. Without the return of research support, he diagnoses, Brazil will experience an unprecedented situation of mass brain drain.
The election you made of Mr. the new president had the highest turnout since 2009. Does that explain the fact that there are two candidacies, or does it have to do with the urgency the pandemic has brought to scientists?
It actually has to do with that sense of urgency. Members felt it was very important to take part in this election to show that the struggle for science, education, the values that the SBPC represents, is almost a matter of national salvation. But of course competition means that whoever prefers one of the candidates chooses more than just a single candidate.
At the same time, the SBPC has relatively few members of the scientific community. How can this be countered?
We need to do an affiliation campaign so that many people who are already members come back and new ones join. Value is relatively cheap. At the same time, many people feel represented by the SBPC, but for some reason have not joined it. We know that the influence of society is much greater [do que o número dos filiados]. It is common for you to have 10,000 to 20,000 people at an annual SBPC meeting.
What are Mr. and the new board of directors?
The first point is to try to save what needs to be saved. I will take the example of the Tupã supercomputer [do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais]. I know that Tupã is a bit out of date and expensive to maintain, but the rumor that it should shut down due to lack of electricity payment is comparable to a situation where you have a latest type of Mercedes-Benz and don’t put in oil – and then the engine melts. The value to Brazil, be it from this emblem that is Tupã, or from state universities and research institutes, is a huge loss to us.
The same applies to graduate scholarships. We are experiencing an almost unprecedented phenomenon in Brazil, the brain drain. I say unprecedented because Brazil has always had a relatively low brain drain, much less than Argentina or India.
And now you hear of young people who educated the country while undergraduate or even graduate, spending money and building bonds that go beyond money, with family, friends, and co-workers, and then you send that person off to an American laboratory or a European. This is nonsense. It’s a stupid economy.
This has to be a priority, but we have to fight on several fronts. We not only have to try to defend what has been lost, but also think about the future. In a society dependent on the knowledge economy, science and related areas – culture, education at all levels, the environment and social inclusion – play a crucial role. All of these factors go into a positive cycle, including for economic growth, hence the mistake of some people to oppose the need to save lives and save GDP.
Take the fall of the Amazon rainforest. It is largely a forest that was planted by civilizations of the past. What we now call genetic engineering of plants has been dominated by indigenous peoples on a slower scale for millennia. When we see a photo like that of the former minister [do Meio Ambiente] Ricardo Salles, everyone brags in front of these huge tree trunks, some of them perhaps older than Brazil itself – it is absurd to make a piece of furniture out of it without even doing research.
All of these factors, overlooked today by the current government’s short-term vision, are very important to economic development and a more equitable society. And science and education, among other things, can be very important in discovering talent that is currently being ignored.
The fact that the poorest people in the favelas have very little access to these professions is an enormous obstacle to Brazilian development. You’re missing out on potential scientists, doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Usually, I reckon that about a third or a quarter of the population had access to opportunities to grow in life. It’s scary – Brazil delivers a third of what it can bring in all areas.
Education ministers in the Bolsonaro government even defended a more elitist view of higher education, stating that it is not for everyone and that technical education must take precedence. How much sense does that make?
Well, the government I know that was most committed to technical education was the Dilma government, through Pronatec, a project that I thought was very well thought out, which unfortunately did not work as it should because of the lack of money was missing. I have nothing against a technical education, which is often even better than the Abitur.
There are perhaps two problems in higher education. Especially with private courses you have to think about the quality first. Second, it is necessary to discuss well what the desired formations are.
Most students today go into three areas, which in turn are law, administration and education, which are mainly offered by the private sector. Later on, these students often find it difficult to find a job. It is therefore necessary to discuss which courses will give people a future.
The interdisciplinary Bachelor programs at the Federal University of Bahia and the Federal University of ABC are a very interesting experience. At UFABC there is an interdisciplinary Bachelor in Science and Technology that lasts three years. The course leads the student to analyze the same topic from multiple angles by combining math, physics, chemistry and biology and qualifies the person to face a range of professional challenges.
With this you leave the logic of the diploma with market reserve. For example, let’s say you want to become a game designer. With the training of this bachelor’s degree you are already halfway into this and other careers. And UFABC did something very nice, namely introducing the course to public school students in ABC cities and attracting them instead of just attracting people from the capital.
Many Brazilian scientists eventually took a clearer political stance on the pandemic, in part in response to the federal government’s rejection. Does that only apply to an extreme situation like the current one, or is it important for scientists to keep political action open at all times?
The scientific development of the 20th century was closely linked to warfare, and the best example of this is the atomic bomb. For a long time it was okay to associate science with artifacts that killed.
However, it has been several decades since the scientific community developed a clear ethical concern and, more recently, environmental sustainability. When you have a pandemic it highlights a process that already existed and got stronger and stronger. It is first of all an ethical attitude that can develop into a political one. The fact that the American scientific community is against Trump or that the Brazilian scientific community is perplexed by the denial of the federal government or people associated with it is above all an ethical position. The defense of peace, the environment, life and social inclusion are issues that are finding growing ethical consensus among scholars.
Prior to the pandemic, science denial didn’t seem like a force to speak of in Brazil, but it does seem to have surfaced in the past two years. How can this be explained?
I see two factors. The first is that although it is difficult to translate the language of the exact and biological sciences for humans, they use innumerable products of it. You can use a GPS and believe in the flat earth or indulge in medicine without understanding the principles behind it. This is where we need to remedy the situation in order to better demonstrate the link between human well-being and science.
The second point has to do with the progress made in recent decades in areas such as gender equality and racial equality. When the economic crisis hits, the search for the guilty among those who lose their purchasing power and jobs is very common, and the easiest way is to blame others. These reactions are hiccups – disastrous, painful, but eventually overcome. I see this overcoming with optimism.