Guest post: Doing ecology on a rollercoaster in Brazil

Note from Brian: This is a guest post from Marco Mello a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. A while back we had an ask us anything question on perceptions of ecology coming out of developing countries. This post stimulated a lot of discussion and it was suggested to solicit some first person experiences. This post is the fourth of several on this topic. Marco is the most senior of all of the guest posts solicited and I think you will notice the long term perspective in his post. I am indebted to Marco for inviting me to speak at the 25th anniversary celebration of the ecology department at his university and for getting me excited about the great ecology happening in Brazil. Marco also blogs at Surviving in Science (in Portuguese but Google Translate is pretty effective).

Have you ever tried to write a paper in a rollercoaster? Let me tell you how it is to do science in a developing country, where the long-term funding policy changes constantly.

First let us go back many years, to a smartphone-free time when people talked to each other in bars, and giant sloths walked the earth. Being an introverted, nature-loving child in Brazil, I decided very early that I wanted to become a professional biologist and do research. This way, I began the “scientist’s journey” full of passion and focus. That was only possible because of the high sacrifices made by my parents to provide me with private education, as we come from a low-income family. Sadly, in Brazil, although public higher education is very good, public basic education is very bad. Therefore, students who come from private schools have much better chances of entering good universities. My time as an undergrad at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ, in Portuguese) was fascinating and I have very fond memories of my professors and colleagues (Figure 1).

Figure 1: wild undergrads roaming the sands of Picinguaba, Brazil, during field practices in the late 90s

Nevertheless, resources were scarce, and many times the Biological Institute did not have basic items such as toilet paper. Even restrooms were lacking due to poor maintenance, so we needed to go to other institutes. Money for equipment was short, so we had to be creative and improvise materials for classes, labs, and field practices. We also shared the costs of those activities with the professors many times. The prospect of becoming a professional scientist and getting a stable or tenured job as a professor or researcher seemed like a dream, which only a few heroes fulfilled. Job openings at universities were very rare at that time. And doing science outside the public universities and research institutes is virtually impossible in Brazil, as there is almost no investment in research in the private sector.

That was the economic crisis of the 90s, my second one. In the 80s, Brazil suffered from hyperinflation, like many other “third-world countries”. In some months, if you wanted to eat meat and could afford a small bit, the only source was the “dealers”, who did not sell dope but steaks. However, in the 80s I was only a child, but in the 90s I was an adult who had to make a living. So my second crisis seemed more real to me.

There was one significant difference between those two crises. In the 90s, the Brazilian government coordinated by the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) was carrying out an economic recovery plan, which was successful in the end, after 10+ years. However, PSDB made one wrong decision: to invest only in basic education and cut funds for higher education. Professors retired and were not replaced. The best part of their salaries was composed of soft money. Grants were quite difficult to obtain and the funds received were meager. Academics felt powerless and dispirited.

Nevertheless, the economic recovery made it possible in the early 2000s for the next government, coordinated by the Workers Party (PT), to improve income distribution, rescuing many people from poverty. The policy was tuned 180°. Funds were reallocated from basic education to higher education, and federal universities were flooded with money. Some new universities or campuses were “founded”, although most lacked even the basic infrastructure. You may ask me then: “ok, Marco, so life was great for scientists then?”. Yes and no.

Most of the investment in science in the 2000s was made through the Program for the Restructuring and Expansion of Federal Universities (REUNI). To make a long story short, REUNI was based on offering a lot of money to universities that volunteered to expand their number of students. Some institutions used the money wisely and finally could restore or improve their infrastructure. Others, unfortunately, did not plan for the mid and long-term. We must also take into account the federal bureaucracy, which makes hiring services and buying materials a nightmare. Many buildings were built with low quality because of our public contracts system.

A pervasive mistake made by departments was to accept additional teaching responsibilities so that they could hire more professors without planning carefully. The main criterion for allocating money to departments or institutes was the proportion of hours taught and students mentored per professor, and not the quality of the research and teaching activities developed by the staff. Unfortunately, some groups were overwhelmed with teaching responsibilities before REUNI and, after the restructuring and expansion, found themselves overwhelmed again. Considering also that, in addition to teaching, we have also mentoring and administrative responsibilities, who can do high-performance research and outreach under those conditions?

Parallel to REUNI, there was also another famous program: Science without Borders (CsF). It was aimed at sending abroad as many students and postdocs as possible in a short time. The general idea was great, but the planning was bad. Traditional exchange programs were forced to join CsF, and a previously diverse system became centralized under an inefficient administration. For instance, in the first years of CsF, undergrads were sent to foreign countries without a study plan. Planning was poor also for Master’s and Ph.D. students.

As you can imagine, the results were not proportional to the investment, although some good also happened. There are stories of successful students who made great achievements through CsF, mainly because of their own initiative and good mentors. Furthermore, many good students and postdocs returned to Brazil during CsF, thanks to special scholarships aimed at stopping our traditional brain drain. And we must not overlook the fact that CsF was the only opportunity of international exchange for many students from low-income families. Everything in life has a yin and yang side.

Alas, wasting money and missing outstanding opportunities was not the only problem. In my personal opinion, during the golden years of REUNI and CsF, many students thought science was thriving and so decided to enter graduate schools. Sadly, many of them, regardless of socioeconomic background, did not think it through and suffered considerably trying to survive the pressure in academia. Apparently, cases of mental illness in universities peaked due to this academic bubble and other social factors that play a role also outside our small world of science. Many students had their dreams crushed, when they finished the PhD and tried to compete in an inflated academic job market.

In 2014, we found out that the government was spending more than it made and the country was broke. The financial bubble burst in Brazil and, since then, funds have been progressively cut. Many scientists were drawn to our country when scholarships and grants were abounding, but now some of our sharpest brains are being drained again. We faced the second presidential impeachment of our infant democracy and the surrogate president, from the Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), decided to implement a radical economic recovery plan.

His plan is even more Spartan that the old plan from the 90s. As in Spain and many other countries facing crises, the first areas to lose money were education, science, and technology. As you know, most citizens do not complain about cuts in those areas, while reductions in public security, cleaning, or health would immediately start Ragnarok. Even among the elite, most of our people do not understand the importance of science. Education is often seen as only a means to get better jobs, not as an end in itself. To make things worse, there are still millions of illiterate and semi-literate Brazilians, and many went back to poverty recently.

That is how a developing country looks like: one foot in the rich world, the other in chaos. My eyes were opened when I spent some years in Germany, first as a Ph.D. student and then as a postdoc. The difference between developed and developing countries became clear to me.

Now we are back to the 90s, without toilet paper. All universities had to cut their expenses, even in security and cleaning. Some state universities are not able even to pay salaries, and so their professors are fleeing and looking for other jobs at federal and private institutions. Even the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), where I did my Master’s degree in ecology, is facing the possibility of closing its doors.

Doing science in a developing country, therefore, is like trying to write a paper in a rollercoaster. In one decade, the university lacks the funds to pay the energy bill, but in the next decade it has more money than it can spend, and ten years later people are fighting over crumbs again. How can you do long-term, high-quality research in this unstable environment? I studied and worked in some of the best Brazilian universities, but I know the situation is much worse in peripheral institutions distant from the rich southeastern region. Inequalities are unbelievable in an enormous country such as Brazil.

I am sad for not being as positive as Pavel Dodonov, who recently wrote another post about doing science in Brazil. Although I agree with him and Terry Gilliam that we need to look on the bright side of life, we need also to talk about the dark side. My intention here was to explain the fiercest challenge faced by us, who take the scientist’s journey in developing countries: unpredictability. Please share your thoughts. This is my personal testimony, so I may have overlooked important issues. Finally, as in other countries, we are facing a toxic political polarization in Brazil. Thus, my advice for fellow Brazilian scientists is: stay independent, as Academia should be a political force in itself.


Acknowledgments: I thank Ricardo Solar and Paulo Peixoto, who gave invaluable suggestions and helped balance this text. I am also grateful to all Brazilian science funding agencies, who have been struggling in the past decades to provide us with some stability, despite changes in the humor of governments.


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19 thoughts on “Guest post: Doing ecology on a rollercoaster in Brazil

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  2. First of all, congrats to McGill and Marco, for the effort.
    Since I am also on the same rollercoaster (by the way, a really excellent metaphor that I must steal, sorry borrow), Marco does a pretty good resume of the last decades.
    Just to add a bit of salt and vinegar to the wounds, we must say that planning if a frequent after thought in some of these programs, such as CsF, in which in the earlier stages we were sending over 80% of our students to Portugal and Spain due to linguistic issues, instead of solving these problems and then sending them to wherever they would gain the most.
    One other point that should be reforced is that, as he points, our bureaucracy, specially related to contracting services is a Friday 13th nightmare with a very heavy side of Massacre of the Chainsaw.
    Even with all of these problems though, we must also recognize that, by and large, we are indeed creating a new mentality in our academia, in which inter (and intra-) national cooperation is much more natural, in which most of our new colleagues tend to have a much broader worldview, and particularly scientific worldview than was prevalent when we are students (I also harken back to the paper paper days).
    Nowadays, for example, any undergraduate student in a university/college/whatever that has a single MSc course dully recognized will have very close to the same access to most of the worlds scientific literature, without recoursing to a friend in a more prestigious university or the deepweb.
    We are also, in my view, starting to come to terms with the notion of being measured and that competition is not such a bad word, again concepts not very acceptable to our mentors back in the early 90s/00s
    We will have a very trying years, but it too shall end someday, and then we will come back (please hear that in a very Terminator voice).
    Thanks again for the piece, Marco and McGill

  3. I was an undergrad during REUNI, so perhaps I’m optimistic for having studied during the Golden Age of the Brazilian Academia (or maybe it’s just the hobbit in me speaking). All those new courses being created – but not enough professors being hired. Well, they were hired a couple of years later. Just like the hospital built in my university – it’s there, but it wasn’t there for the first medicine students to do their practice.

    One thing that I think PT got right was to take higher education far from the center. This gave a chance to study to many people who, being poor and needing to help their families, had no chance otherwise.

    • Yes, I agree. That’s the same strategy adopted by PSDB in the 90s but for basic education. The mistake of both parties was going for an “all or nothing strategy”, as both basic and higher education need investment. They also failed by making decisions without considering successful examples and hearing the experts. And another common mistake was not planning for the sustainability of their strategies.

    • Pavel, that was indeed a major feature of most of the expansions (though unfortunetely not all of them, and it was a real boon to both students and a lot of the minor cities which received them, due to the new cash inflow.
      On the other hand, these centers had a major problem in starting to be more research-heavy due to the usually very high professor turnonver, and a secondary problem with the research logistics, since some of them are really hard on the transport front.
      Looking on the bright side, the reduction in new hirings that we are seeing may reduce the turnover problem, and lead a lot of the faculty and create roots on these new centers, which is important to increase graduate studies programs feasibility.

  4. Thank you for the post, Marco. It’s interesting to see the current socioeconomic moment contextualized within the narrative of one career. Hopefully the next upward swing isn’t too far in the future.

    I love the picture of Picinguaba, and have an identical one from my own class’ visit in 2014. My favorite place in the world.

    • Picinguaba is also my favorite place in the world! And the region, Costa Verde, is paradise on earth! Yes, I also hope the next upward swing is coming soon… That’s the main lesson I learned: crises and bubbles are impermanent, as well as everything in life.

  5. Professor Marco did a very correct but still optimistic analysis. He showed only one side of the hole we are in. There are others and even much deeper, such as, for example, Brazil’s social infrastructure (lack of day-care centers, lack of schools, cities of chaotic and disorganized traffic), and the high level of urban violence that afflicts all citizens. We all live in fear today, and a mere walk on a weekend can be a tragedy. The day to day of the Brazilian, regardless of his social class, is desperate. I think it’s a miracle that some of us can get published in good international scientific journals from time to time. Congratulations Marco for frankness and honesty.

    • Hi Marcos! Thank you very much for your comments. Yes, I agree, there are many other serious problems that I did not mention in my text. And social problems always get worse during crises.

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