Top Brazilian Scientists Flee Bolsonaro’s Cuts … and Head to the US

Researcher Verônica Teixeira adjusts the optics of a research station at the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron.

Source Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials

Why you should care

Record numbers of the most educated researchers and academics are leaving the country, hobbling Brazil’s sciences while helping those abroad.

Brazilian microbiologist Amaro Emiliano Trindade Silva loves his work at the Federal University of Bahia, where he analyzes the impact of climate change on underground water, research that could prove a game-changer for understanding a little-known facet of global warming. But for the first time in his life, he is contemplating leaving Brazil for good. And Silva is not alone.

Latin America’s largest economy and most populous nation is grappling with an intellectual exodus propelled by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s funding freezes in higher education and research. Since it took office in January, Brazil’s new government has stalled the release of 8 billion reals ($2 billion) from education, science and technology budgets as part of austerity measures, leaving research projects in limbo and thousands of researchers without research scholarships.

For climate change researchers such as Silva, the political climate is particularly unfriendly. Bolsonaro, a critic of the Paris climate agreement, has proposed opening up the Amazon rainforests for mining, while his foreign minister has described climate change as a “Marxist plot.”

Now, the country’s researchers and highly educated intellectuals are responding — by fleeing the nation in record numbers. In April, the number of U.S. visas granted to Brazilians for extraordinary ability, or those with higher-level degrees, soared to 159 percent over 2018 and 408 percent over 2017. The University of Campinas has begun to track the growing Brazilian science, technology and innovation diaspora in the United States under a project funded by the American embassy in the country. And in a bid to woo some Brazilians back home, the Brazilian embassy in London held its first-ever “Workshop of the Brazilian Diaspora of Science, Technology and Innovation in the U.K” in February. Numbers of those leaving for Europe are harder to track because many Brazilian academics and researchers have dual citizenships in European countries and so don’t need visas.

It’s like losing Pelé on a football team.

Antônio José Roque da Silva, director, Sirius particle accelerator

Brazil’s top research projects such as Sirius, the particle accelerator at the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron — the country’s most sophisticated and cutting-edge science facility — are feeling the pressure. Director Antônio José Roque da Silva fears losing his team. Any delay or setback because of the fund cuts may tip the scales, pushing these brilliant minds — who are constantly “harassed” with offers abroad — to relocate.

“Human knowledge is science’s most valuable asset,” says Roque da Silva. “It’s like losing Pelé on a football team. These aren’t abilities and skills that are easily replaced.”

 

To be sure, Brazil has had previous waves of emigration too. It spiked in 1964 with the military coup, then again in 1972 with the crash of the Brazilian stock exchange. And this current wave of departures from within Brazil’s academic and research community has had other drivers too. More than a million Brazilians in all have made lives elsewhere in the world since the start of the country’s political and economic crisis six years ago.

But Bolsonaro’s moves represent the sharpest blow in that series of tribulations, and it is driving off Brazil’s top researchers faster than ever before, even those who had no intention at all to leave. “This was never a life plan for me,” says Silva. “I never wanted to leave.” 

For several institutions, research funding comes later — even basic amenities are proving hard to support. The prestigious Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, at the southernmost tip of Brazil, was unable to pay its latest electricity bill. In May, tens of thousands of educators, researchers and students flooded the streets of more than 200 Brazilian cities to express their outrage. Bolsonaro, during a trip to Dallas, called protesters “a bunch of imbeciles” and claimed the measures were necessary.

National unemployment stands at 11 percent but disproportionately affects highly educated Brazilians. Among young people with master’s degrees, the rate is 35 percent, and a fourth of Brazil’s Ph.D. holders are currently unemployed. Those bleak career prospects and poor working conditions are swaying Silva’s decision. “Here in Brazil, a researcher’s job includes fixing air conditioning, buying materials and dealing with bureaucracy. It’s a burden,” he says. “What I can’t do is stop researching.”

For well-educated Brazilians, leaving is easy. “Emigration of young Brazilians with advanced education is increasing — and these people are welcomed in the U.S.,” says immigration expert Leonardo Freitas, CEO of legal firm Hayman-Woodward, which specializes in helping Brazilians emigrate to the U.S. The Brazilian crème de la crème, Freitas says, are “well-trained professionals at an accessible price” for First World employers. He cites the example of a client who is a veterinary researcher and was making around $1,000 a month in Brazil. He now earns $180,000 a year in the U.S. The current exodus, he says, includes “doctors, nutritionists, engineers, commercial pilots, IT experts, architects, economists, journalists and businessmen.” This is impacting fields ranging from high-energy particle physics to environmental scientists and from engineering to medicine and even information technology.

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Researcher Narcizo de Souza Neto prepares samples for analysis at the current electron accelerator at the Laboratório Nacional de Luz Síncrotron.

Source Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials

Brazilian officials are trying to woo those who are leaving, hoping to play on their sense of patriotism. In the opening speech at the London workshop in February, Brazil’s ambassador, Fred Arruda, expressed hopes that “the excellence and talent of the Brazilian scientific community in the U.K. are successfully leveraged to benefit the development of Brazil.”

Kate Hooper, an analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, sees risks for economic development and innovation but also points to potential benefits. “Skilled migration carries obvious benefits for the people who are moving and the destination countries,” she says, but it also brings remittances, cross-country collaboration and the opening of new markets as potential advantages for the source nation. “The question is really how to maximize these,” she adds.

So far though, Brazil has laid out no clear plan to actually follow through on Arruda’s hopes. And the longer it waits while its most educated and qualified intellectuals leave, the further it could witness a setback to its development, suggests Marcio Pochmann, an economist and political scientist at the University of Campinas. “Without favorable conditions in the Brazilian labor market,” he says, “the country has gone from being an important driver of brain training to stimulating the export of brains.”

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