[SÃO PAULO and RECIFE] The Brazilian government has announced significant changes to a scheme introduced by its predecessor two years ago under which funding for research is raised and allocated through so-called 'sectoral funds'.
Under this system, money is raised through a tax on companies working in sectors such as biotechnology, energy, and fuel, and subsequently used to fund research in that area. At present, about 1.2 billion reais (US$413 million) is raised in this way each year (although the distribution of about half of this amount has been blocked by the government).
When the sectoral funds were introduced in 2001, the new system was widely welcomed by parts of the scientific community. The former government described it as a way of injecting much needed money into the research system, while ensuring that the research carried out was directly relevant to the country's social and economic needs.
However one problem it has encountered is that the panels of researchers and government officials set up to administer each fund have been working in isolation from those handling the funds in other sectors. This has led to significant inefficiencies, particularly when it comes to research on common needs.
According to Wanderley de Souza, executive secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), the work of the funds will in future be co-ordinated more closely, so that a single research project can be financed out of more than one sectoral fund.
The change is the result of a review of the operation of the funds conducted by the new government, which came to power on January shortly after the election of Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva. "This change will allow a more efficient use of the money", says de Souza.
A more controversial change, suggested this week by sectors of the Ministry of Planning, would be to move control of the 14 existing funds from the Ministry of Science and Technology to various ministries.
The Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) has expressed concern about such a proposal. According to a document written by the SBPC board of directors, dispersing the funds among several ministries would make it more difficult to apply an integrated, strategic approach to the support of science and technology across all areas of government.
Instead, says the document, there should be greater participation by the different sectors involved with the funds in decisions over the way that the money is spent, “in order to allow an optimisation of [its] application”. This participation would be co-ordinated by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Meanwhile, the ministry is already facing a more practical problem about the funds, namely that there is currently a gap of about US$150 million between the cost of projects that have been approved for funding, and the amount of money that these projects have so far received.
Despite these problems, however, De Souza believes that the changes in the way that the funds are run will help to restore confidence in the approach that they represent. Applications for a new round of research funding out of the sectoral funds will be invited in the second half of this year.