Students

Brazilian RUG students fear for the future

‘We are becoming an endangered species’

Brazilian students at the RUG say that everything back home seems to be going up in flames: the Amazon; the future of science. Is staying in Groningen their only hope for survival?
Text and photos by Felipe Silva / Photo above CIFOR

You probably know the Amazon is on fire; it’s making headlines all over the world. Reports say the losses – of trees, animals, and indigenous cultures – could be enormous. But Brazil might be facing another loss that you probably haven’t heard about: its scientists. Thanks to recent sweeping cuts to education funding, Brazilian students in Groningen say they feel like they could become an endangered species themselves.

Scientists in Brazil have a saying: they don’t do science, they do magic. There has always been limited funding for their projects, so students and researchers have had to find creative ways to make something out of almost nothing. ‘It’s a different world here’, says Dominique Ramos (23). She arrived in September to begin a master’s degree in Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation. She can’t, for example, imagine Dutch undergraduate students buying their own laboratory gloves and safety equipment, washing out contaminated disposable material for reuse, or navigating wildly over-crowded lab spaces.

There’s a long history of talented Brazilian students going abroad to study so they don’t have to worry about resources. In the nine months that Jair Bolsonaro has been President, the situation for students in Brazil has only gotten worse. Brazilian RUG students are wondering if they will have to stay here just to survive.

Payment halted

The majority of the money that supports science in Brazil – including Masters and PhD positions – is funded by public scholarships. But two weeks ago, the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) announced the cancellation of more than 5,600 new scholarship openings for the next year. After major backlash from the public 3,182 of those spots were reinstated.

Esdras Raposo (23)

Nonetheless, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) has stated that it will likely halt payment for scholarships soon, which would leave 80,000 PhD and master students unsure whether they will continue getting paid as early as September. Then they will have a choice to make: work for free, or drop out altogether. To make matters worse, their scholarship contracts restrict them from taking outside work to make ends meet.

Yesterday, the Brazilian congress received a supplementary budget request of 250 million reais – money recovered from a corruption scandal involving a national oil company – for the scholarship fund. If approved, that money would act as a stop-gap for students until the end of the year. But the research budget next year will still be 87% lower, which means that Brazilian scientists will continue to feel trapped in a cycle of unpredictable financial insecurity.

‘It’s just not fair’, says Esdras Raposo (23), a freshman in the master’s program of Clinical and Psychosocial Epidemiology. ‘I know a lot of students back home who are just as qualified as I am, but they probably won’t become Masters or PhDs due to the scholarships cuts.’

Torn

For now, Raposo plans to stay here where the situation is more stable. PhD student Juliana Vilacha, who has been here since 2016, agrees: ‘Whatever problems there are in Brazil, I will have a steady time here. I won’t be surprised by my funding being cut in the middle of my PhD.’ She develops computer simulations to find the best drugs for lung cancer patients. The work is satisfying but she often feels frustrated by her inability to help her fellow scientists back home. ‘I’m limited by the distance between me and my country. I don’t have any tools to help people there.’

Erika Machado (28)

PhD student Erika Machado (28) also feels torn between Groningen and Brazil. She just began a new project developing an artificial pancreas that can be implanted under the skin to produce insulin – a fix that might one day replace daily insulin shots for diabetes patients. She’s excited to start this new phase in her career, and she can see a clear path to reaching her goals from here. But she also feels constant pressure to return home and help her country.

‘Parents, professors, friends… all of them say, “you are so good, you are so well prepared, you will be so useful here. The future of the country depends on people like you!” But when you know you’re good at something, you want to keep pursuing it. I won’t be able to fully explore my potential in Brazil. I cannot carry the country on my back.”

Overblown

But not all Brazilian students are conflicted. Masters student Itamar Dias (34), an outspoken supporter of Bolsonaro, thinks concern about the budget cuts is way overblown. He says the cuts – while in some ways regrettable – are necessary, temporary, and will ultimately help the country. He is confident that the current government can find ways to move money back into scholarships from other parts of the budget.

‘We have been in recession for the past six years’, he shrugs. ‘So these cuts are a purely fiscal decision. I don’t think science in Brazil is under threat. There is no political motivation for these funding cuts that poses some idealogical threat to science.’ He points out that a significant portion of the scholarship money wasn’t even earmarked for science, but for the arts and humanities: ‘areas that don’t generate relevant papers’.

Fernando Batista (29)

Eventually, Dias asserts, the economy and the sciences will both recover. He plans to finish his PhD abroad and return to Brazil to become a professor and to manage his own lab. He knows it will be harder to get resources there, but in his home state of Rondonia he will likely be the first PhD student in biological sciences. He thinks that will improve his personal chances at securing funding. ‘I graduated in the USA and I learned a little bit about how to get funding. So I’m not worried.’

Out of time

Even if Dias is right that things will be okay in the long run, Fernando Batista (29) can’t wait for things to get better. He has to return to Brazil this month.

Batista spent four years at the UMCG researching 3D structures of proteins in order to develop new drugs to treat malaria. He isn’t ready for his career to be over. When his PhD ended, he and his supervisor tried hard to secure a research grant that would keep him here for at least one more year. ‘Unfortunately, the grant didn’t go through’, Batista says, sadly. So now he’s getting on a plane to São Paulo, where he has managed to secure a post-doc position. Funding for the project is not guaranteed. ‘I’m going back because I don’t have a choice. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to maintain the project.’

In the meantime, he is determined to use every magic trick in his bag to get back to the RUG, one way or another.

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