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‘A hostile environment.’ Brazilian scientists face rising attacks from Bolsonaro’s regime

‘A hostile environment.’ Brazilian scientists face rising attacks from Bolsonaro’s regime
Science
Last week, scientists at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), Brazils lead agency for studying and managing the nations vast protected areas, had to start abiding by an unwelcome new rule. It gives one of ICMBios top officials the authority to review all manuscripts, texts and scientific compilations before they are published.

Researchers fear President Jair Bolsonaros administration, which has a markedly hostile relationship with Brazils scientific community, will use the reviews to censor studies that conflict with its ongoing efforts to weaken environmental protections. The administration says that is not the intent. But the move adds to recent developments that have rattled many Brazilian scientists and left those who are critical of Bolsonaros policies fearing for their jobs and even their physical safety.

Science is being attacked on several fronts, says Philip Fearnside, a veteran ecologist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). There is denial of the pandemic, denial of climate change, denial of deforestation; not to mention budget cuts.

Bolsonaros grievances with scientists date back to the start of his administration in 2019. Then, he accused the National Institute for Space Research of lyingabout satellite data showing increased deforestation in the Amazon and fired its director, physicist Ricardo Galvo, after he defended the numbers. Since then, Bolsonaro has clashed with researchers over issues including his persistent rejection of science-based strategies for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 330,000 Brazilians. But the relationship appears to have entered an even tenser phase in recent months.

One example came in February, when Brazils top anticorruption agency, the Office of the Comptroller General, informed epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, former rector of the Federal University of Pelotas, that he could lose his job because of criticism he leveled at Bolsonaro in January during an online event. Hallal, who coordinates Brazils largest COVID-19 epidemiology research project, had called Bolsonaro despicable, citing the presidents antivaccination rhetoric and his political interference in the selection of university rectors.

Just weeks earlier, Bolsonaros education ministry had ordered the rectors of all 69 federal universities, which employ most Brazilian scientists, to prevent and punish political-partisan acts by employees. After an outcry, the ministry last month withdrew the order, and Hallal ultimately reached a settlement with the comptrollers office, promising not to promote expression of appreciation or disapproval in the workplace for 2 years.

Hallal remains defiant. If the idea was to silence me, I have to say it backfired, he says. Its motivating me to be even more critical and say what needs to be said. But he fears the political climate is silencing some of his colleagues. A lot of people are saying less than they would like to, for fear of retaliation.

Scientists are also reconsidering what they study and publish, says Marcus Lacerda, an infectious disease specialist with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. Last year, he faced intense inquiries from federal prosecutorsand received death threats after he published work highlighting the health risks of giving the drug chloroquine to COVID-19 patients . (Bolsonaro heavily promoted chloroquine despite studies concluding it is ineffective against COVID-19.) A lot of people are afraid to publish after what happened to me, Lacerda says. Colleagues have abandoned coronavirus research, he adds, in order to avoid online harassment by what is known as Bolsonaros digital militia.

In one case, online harassment appears to have escalated to a physical attack. After biologist Lucas Ferrante, a doctoral candidate at INPA, published articles in high-profile journals (including

Science

) criticizing Bolsonaros environmental and health policies, his cellphone and social media accounts lit up with threatening messages. Then, in November 2020, he says he was attacked by a man driving what he thought was an Uber vehicle he had hailed; the man told Ferrante he needed to shut up and punched him. Since then, Ferrante says he has been wary of leaving his house and carries a cellphone that isnt linked to his name.

This week, a group of Brazilian researchers cited safety concerns in explaining why they did not to sign their names to a white paper, published by the Climate Social Science Network housed at Brown University, that outlines Bolsonaros efforts to dismantle environmental protections. They decided to remain anonymous for security reasons and considering the current political scenario in Brazil, they wrote.

At ICMBio, the new oversight rule gives review authority to the institutes biodiversity research director, one of four ICMBio directors who serve under the institutes president. In a statement, institute officials portrayed the order as simply a bureaucratic shift, noting that ICMBios president previously had review authority. There is no censorship, it states. But researchers note that none of the top ICMBio officials is ascientisttrained to conduct technical reviews; all are former military police officers or firefighters.

A similar rule was issued last month at Brazils Institute for Applied Economic Research, a prominent federal research institution.

Brazilian scientists are also facing a deepening funding crisis. Government spending on research has shrunk by more than 70% from a 2014 peak, and the Bolsonaro administration recently cut 34% from the science ministrys investment budget for this year. The countrys top federal funding agency, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, is expected to have less than $4 million available for research grants this year.

The funding troubles and constant conflict are wearing down Brazilian researchers, says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia and co-founder of the Science and Society Coalition, a group created in 2019 to promote science-based policies. I am so exhausted of having to defend myself all the time, she says. Meanwhile, all the important issues that we really should be tackling are being left behind.

Most Brazilian scientists are not accustomed to functioning in such ahostile environment, adds Atila Iamarino, a microbiologist and prominent science communicator. They are trained to argue with facts, but thats not what matters most in these situations.
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