Funding: Austerity bites deeply

PhD students in Luiz Davidovich's quantum-optics laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in Brazil are afraid to turn on the lab's main laser in case it malfunctions. Davidovich encourages them to be extremely careful. “If it breaks — and lasers do break — that's it,” he says. “There's no money to replace or fix it.”

Davidovich, who was elected president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences last year, says that institutions supported by Rio de Janeiro's state government are reeling from the latest round of funding cuts.

Salaries are several months in arrears at Rio de Janeiro State University, which forced it to close for three months earlier this year. The state's research funding agency, FAPERJ, is bankrupt, yet still publishes calls for new projects. “There's a law that says they have to — but they know they don't have money to pay for the projects they have already approved,” says Davidovich. “It's a theatre of the absurd.”

Brazil's bleak financial picture has caused great disquiet among researchers across the nation. In March, the federal government announced that it was slashing the proposed 2017 science budget by 44%, bringing it to the lowest level in 12 years — 2.8 billion reais (US$888 million). Although cuts were made across almost all federal ministries, the reduction in science spending hit particularly hard because the budget had already been chopped every year since 2013.

Yet Brazil is not the only South American nation where scientists are struggling because of the dire economic situation. Researchers in Argentina, which has the most Nobel prizes of any South American country, also face an uncertain and potentially grim future. Both countries have undergone political swings to the right in the past few years, electing governments that dismiss the value of science funding.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri cut the science ministry's budget by 36% in real terms as part of an austerity programme that he hopes will attract foreign investment. Argentine researchers now fear that if Macri's party gains a congressional majority in October's mid-term elections, he will fuse the science and education ministries. “It would imply that Macri's government sees science as having more to do with culture than with industry and innovation,” says César Bertucci, an astrophysicist at the University of Buenos Aires. And the nation's commitment in 2013 to steadily increase its stock of scientists by 10% every year to 2019–20 is faltering.

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