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  • Brazil stirs controversy with foreign study scheme


[RIO DE JANEIRO] Brazil will spend around US$2 billion over the next three years on sending 75,000 students and researchers abroad, under a programme announced last week (26 July) by the Brazilian science minister, Aloizio Mercadante.

Mercadante announced the 'Science without borders' initiative at the 38th meeting of the Economic and Social Development Council, which advises the president on economic and social issues.

But the announcement has surprised many in the scientific community, since the country has recently been working to improve its own graduate programmes and research capacity — only providing funding for shorter stays abroad, to avoid encouraging a brain drain of scientific talent out of the country.

The new programme will provide 27,100 undergraduate scholarships, 24,600 fellowship for PhD students spending a year abroad; 9,790 fellowships for four-year doctorates; and 8,900 post-doctorate fellowships.

There will also be 390 fellowships for visiting researchers in Brazil, mainly targeted at Brazilians living abroad.

"The best students will be sent to the best universities worldwide," Mercadante said in announcing the new programme, according to the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) website.

"In this way, we will overcome the biggest challenges in the country and allow a 'quantum jump' in training for strategic areas in a sustainable way, expanding the medium and high technology sectors."  

However critics say that the new initiative conflicts with policies adopted by Brazil over the last decades, which have emphasized the strengthening of national graduate programmes and widening access to master and PhD courses in the country.

At the same time, the number of full doctorate fellowships available for study abroad had been cut back, in response to the fact that many of the recipients of such awards subsequently fail to return to Brazil."The announcement was unexpected," Celso Pinto de Mello, president of the Brazilian Society of Physics, told SciDev.Net.

He pointed out that the issue had not been not discussed with Brazil's professional scientific societies. Neither had it been raised at the National Conference for Science and Technology held last year, which was convened by then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and attended by 4,000 people from the academic community, government, private and industry sectors.

Mercadante has justified the new initiatives as being required to meet the country's increasing demand for qualified scientists and engineers, and its focus on engineering and the life sciences, in which Brazil has a shortage of experts.

Responding in an interview on the national radio channel, EBC, to a suggestion that the new initiative could end up exacerbating the brain drain, he said that he did not think that this would happen, as recipients of awards would be drawn back to Brazil by the needs of the country's growing economy.

At the same time, Mercadante said, academic jobs were likely to become more difficult to find in the United States and Europe because of the economic difficulties faced by these countries.

But many are not convinced, arguing that his main motivation is to introduce an initiative that is different from those of his predecessors.

"We don't need a programme to promote the brain drain," said Mello, who also pointed out that the lack of foreign language teaching in the country's public schools was likely to be a problem.

Those with the required language facilities to study abroad were therefore more likely to be from middle and higher classes, who can afford private schools and language courses. "This can represent a significant social exclusion of those for whom the language represents a significant barrier," said Mello.

Mercadante's presentation on the new programme (in Portuguese)

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