Since the end of May, Brazilian scientists have not been allowed to import tax-free materials for research. As a result, the main scientific centers in the country have had to cease operations or have been hampered by the increase in spending.
On the 14th, Research Vice Rectors of USP, Unicamp and Unesp sent a letter to the Minister of Science and Technology, Marcos Pontes, demanding the reintroduction of the normal values of the import quota.
“This cut has serious implications for hundreds of ongoing research projects,” said the Vice Rectors on behalf of Cruesp (Rectors’ Council of São Paulo State Universities). “We should mention that among these affected projects there are several dedicated to the procurement of a national vaccine as well as drugs to fight Covid-19.”
The import quota enables institutions, companies and scientists to import equipment, accessories and raw materials for scientific and technological research free of charge through the CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development).
In 2020, the exemption quota was worth $ 300 million (more than R $ 1.5 billion in current values). In 2021 the quota was only $ 93.29 million (just over R $ 482 million).
In the past few months, several scientific institutions in the country have contacted both Marcos Pontes and the Minister for the Economy, Paulo Guedes, to explain the extent of the problem if the exemptions are not resumed.
“The development and advancement of hundreds of studies depend on the acquisition of these materials in the overseas market, including those related to the search for an ongoing national vaccine as well as other important drugs to fight Covid-19 and other pathologies,” they said they, in June eight of the country’s most important scientific institutions in letters to Guedes and Pontes.
Signatory institutions include the ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences), the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science) and the Confies (National Council to Support Foundations for Universities and Scientific and Technological Research Institutions).
Also in January, the CNPq itself sent an official letter to the Ministry of Economic Affairs to reinstate the quota, according to Lauro Jardim’s blog in the O Globo newspaper.
“Because the amount has already been defined in the PLOA [Projeto de Lei Orçamentária Anual] and since it was not possible to correct it, it was kept in the regulation, but with the commitment of the ministries of science, technology and innovation as well as the economy to urgently seek a solution to the budgetary problem, “the Council told the press January release.
So far, however, such efforts have shown no effect, while research has already been discontinued due to the expiry of the quota this year.
“For me, this is the slow death of research. It’s asphyxiation. You kill a laboratory if you can’t buy key equipment,” says Fernando Peregrino, managing director of Fundação Coppetec / UFRJ and president of Confies.
Folha had access to lists of some of the projects that were stopped or had an impact at some universities in the country. These include UnB, UFPR (Federal University Paraná), UFRJ (Federal University Rio de Janeiro) and Furg (Federal University Rio Grande).
At the UnB (University of Brasília) the studies were affected by Covid. One of them is trying to evaluate the use of plasma from the blood of patients recovered from Covid in treating the disease. In this case, due to the urgency of the pandemic moment, the material was even imported without tax exemption, i.e. with the payment of taxes.
Laboratory kits, spares, and machinery are some of the items that have generally stopped projects awaiting duty-free entry.
The Brazilian electron accelerator Sirius, under the responsibility of Cnpem (National Center for Energy and Materials Research), is also directly affected by the end of the quota. At the inauguration of the accelerator, President Jair Bolsonaro asked (nonpartisan), “Why don’t we make this place the Silicon Valley of biotechnology, given the big companies that can benefit from this work?”
The LNBio (National Biosciences Laboratory) belonging to Cnpem, which is researching Covid-19, is also affected.
Another location affected was the Brazilian doping control laboratory, according to Peregrino.
The laboratory at UFRJ was used for anti-doping tests for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In addition, Ladetec (Technological Development Support Laboratory), which also includes doping, has run into operational difficulties due to the end of the quota.
“The biological field requires a lot of materials and substances,” says Peregrino. “This is an affected laboratory that lives on imports,” he says, referring to the doping laboratory.
The President of Confies confirms that a solution to the problem was proposed for last week, but it did not materialize. A situation like the current one is unthinkable for a nation with Brazil’s development patterns.
“It’s stunted [as equipes de pesquisa]. It loses the ability to invest money, educate students, it loses prestige, it stops publishing, it stops producing. It’s choking, “says Peregrino.
Giuseppe Romito, professor at the USP School of Dentistry, had also stopped his research at the end of his quota and had to stop his clinical project, which was carried out in partnership with the University of Zurich (Switzerland).
“We do everything that is funded. International partnerships, with excellent research centers and everything else. And when we get the material to import, we can’t because the quota is over, ”says Romito. “You lose confidence in your partners. People are planned out there too.”
These are just a few of the projects and labs affected by the end of the quota. The Brazilian institutions that typically make greater use of the quota are the Butantan Institute and Fiocruz – through its supporting foundation Fiotec – the ones responsible for making vaccines against Covid and leading the fight against the pandemic in Brazil in 2021.
However, the effects on butantane and fiocruz did not result in project stops. Butantane explains in a statement that since the end of the quota it “has been dependent on its own resources and other sources of support and has not interrupted any of its projects”.
The situation is similar for Fiocruz’s projects with Fiotec (a foundation that benefits from the exemption), with other budget sources not intended to paralyze research. In 2020, Fiocruz / Fiotec used around $ 48 million of the $ 300 million in import exemption quotas. During those years, the foundation used $ 16.6 million of the $ 93 million made available to the country.
“This quota cut has a direct impact, affects several areas and the fulfillment of the requirements of the SUS,” said Priscila Ferraz, Deputy Vice-President for Management and Institutional Development at Fiocruz, recalling the various health sectors in which the Institutional Law projects.
In the case of Fiotec, the end of the quota has systemic effects, according to Ferraz. “In any case, there is the loss, the slowdown,” he says.
She points out that without the exemption there could be a cost increase of 20 to 40%.
For some projects, the Brazilian government itself may incur additional costs due to the lack of an import quota.
Folha contacted the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the CNPq but had received no response from these agencies until the publication of this report.