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  • Brazil's science minister offers to step down


[RIO DE JANEIRO] Brazil's minister of science and technology, Roberto Amaral, has offered to resign, becoming the first minister to do so since president Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva came into power a year ago.

Amaral's move follows growing concern in the scientific community that his policies may damage the country’s scientific development, and rumours in the national press that he would be dropped as part of the government's ministerial re-shuffle.

Lula has not yet announced whether he will accept Amaral's resignation, or who his replacement is likely to be.

Amaral, a political scientist and writer, was appointed in January last year at the recommendation of the Brazilian Socialist Party, which was allocated the ministry of science and technology in the new government as result of its alliance with Lula’s Worker's Party. 

Recently, however, support for Amaral's policies from his party has been falling. The party is now proposing to Lula that the economist Eduardo Campos, the grandson of the party's national president and member of parliament, Miguel Arraes, should take over as minister of science and technology.

From the very beginning, Amaral had little support from the scientific community. But owing to the backing that Lula had – and still has – from the research community as a whole, there were no significant protests at first.

Doubts, however, have been growing over the past year, one of Amaral's most outspoken critics being Ennio Candotti, president of the country’s largest scientific body, the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC).

In an interview with a leading daily newspaper, O Globo, in September, Candotti criticised Amaral for disrupting several long-standing scientific initiatives. Candotti claimed that some of the government's policy were ill thought-out, and could end up damaging the country’s science base (see Lula's policies 'could damage Brazilian science').

Last week, Candotti again criticised Amaral, stating in an interview with the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo that "the ministry hasn't succeeded in dealing with important issues, such as co-ordination among the several ministries involved in science and technology".

Candotti also accused Amaral of failing to ensure proper functioning of the so-called 'sectoral funds' – a system through which taxes raised on companies working in sectors such as biotechnology, energy, and fuel are used to fund research in that area. About US$660 million of the funds raised in this way have not been disbursed by the government

The ministry has also come under fire for distributing money so widely, in order to please various groups, that, according to some researchers, there is little money left for important projects.

For example, in a recent article in Folha de São Paulo, Rogério Cezar de Cerqueira Leite, a professor at Unicamp, the state university of Campinas, criticised the government for refusing to spend US$2.6 million on a nanotechnology programme based at the country's largest science park.

Instead, he said, "the ministry of science and technology proudly announced that such resources were to be distributed, democratically, among 230 groups, adding ironically that "each could opt between a voltmeter and a coloured chalk box".

But there has also been some praise for Amaral's policy to reduce regional disparities in scientific development. For example, in November, state secretaries of science and technology and heads of funding agencies in the states wrote in a letter that they supported his efforts to redistribute federal funding in order to achieve the decentralisation of science, technology and innovation activities.

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