Brazil’s new Sci&Tech Minister: a let down

For some ungodly reason unbeknownst to me, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff decided to announce a bunch of new ministers just one day before holidays, on 23 December. You know, people are busy making preparations for Christmas, not exactly paying much attention to the news. Alas, news seem to be more worried about Christmas than the people are. Couldn’t they have done it in a better timing? Just sayin’. Well, now that I got this rant out of the way, let’s talk real business. The new chairman of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) is Aldo Rebelo, former Minister of Sports.

Aldo Rebelo is a journalist, member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and a representative of the state of São Paulo at the Chamber of Deputies. He is also known for taking unscientific, nationalist and protectionist stances during his political career. Let’s number a few of them:

  • In 1994, he proposed a project of law (PL) that would forbid the adoption of manpower saving technological innovations by public agencies (in other worlds, he thought that these innovations would cause unemployment). The project never saw the light of the day.
  • In 1999, he proposed a PL that would abolish the use of foreign words in formal Brazilian Portuguese. As an example, the words “computador” and “mouse” would be “operador” and “rato”. Not surprisingly, the project was never taken seriously.
  • In 2003, another PL, this time aiming to institutionalize the Day of the Saci (a Brazilian folklore figure) on October 31, the day that North-Americans celebrate Halloween. The proposal was archived.
  • In 2006, he proposed a PL that would force the use of 10% mandioca (a kind of potato that only exists in Latin America) flour in the production of wheat flour. The justifications were the “improvement of nutritional value” of the flour and the boost for the production chain of mandioca. This project was also denied.
  • In 2010, in an open letter, he blatantly denied global warming. Why he cited a philosopher/social scientist (Friedrich Engels) instead of a climate scientist beats me. Actually, no, it doesn’t. Here’s a translated excerpt of the letter:

Actually, there is no scientific proof of the global warming projections, and even less that it is occurring because of human action and not because of natural phenomena. It is a formulation based on computer simulations. In fact, by my tradition, I join a scientific line of thinking that prioritizes the doubt over the certainty and doesn’t let the question shut itself over the first answer. Along the extraordinary advances and achievements that Science has bequeathed to the progress of Humanity, there are innumerable errors, frauds and manipulations weaved in service of the interest of countries that finance certain research or projections. […] In contrary of what think the ones that changed more than the world did, the so called international environmentalist movement is nothing more than, in its geopolitical essence, the head of the bridge of imperialism.

  • In 2011, he was accused, by a member of the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), of giving away to the lobbyists of agribusiness and ignoring the scientific community.

On the other hand, Aldo Rebelo has his share of accolades:

  • He is very well seen by other deputies, in fact the best according to 228 deputies.
  • He has intense participation on international relations and national defense affairs.
  • His secretary, Luis M. R. Fernandes, is an actual [political] scientist, and he has experience as member/head of scientific agencies (including being the executive secretary for the MCTI).
  • Some political scientists and analysts see him as a very competent politician.

Now, here is the problem: Aldo Rebelo has the traits of people that we do not want to see as a managers of the political affairs of science; he denies scientific evidence, bases his stances on personal/ideological beliefs and has strong opinions on nationalism, which is terrible given that most science today is done through international cooperation – and on that regard, I wonder what kind of support we astronomers are going to receive in our plea to become a member of the European Southern Observatory. The process was started in 2010 by a decisive act from the former Minister of Sci&Tech Sérgio Rezende, and since then, it has been dragged on through a series of political intermissions. With very little support from the current (and soon to be former) minister Clelio C. Diniz (which is more inclined to science aimed at innovation), along with the World Cup and the elections, the ratification has been delayed for months, and so far there is no prospect of success.

Doing science in Brazil is difficult, especially at institutions that are not located in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Most universities around here seem to be worried about giving more and more lectures and creating more and more undergraduate programs instead of investing in science. We desperately need politicians who understand science and our biggest problems, someone who is willing to fight for what we do. The fact that Aldo Rebelo is a competent politician does not outweigh his worrisome traits and stances in the past. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges as the Minister of STI is going to be financial politics, and we all know that this is the Achille’s heel of science at the moment. Maybe, and just maybe, if he can do a good job on that, there is prospect of redemption, and hope that at least our funding is in good hands. If he does his job, we can do ours – but that is the bare minimum.

After the announcement of the new ministers on 23 December, Dilma Rousseff has seen a lot of criticism on her decisions by political analysts on the internet, even by some people who have endorsed her government. One of her most polemic decisions, besides choosing a climate change denier for the MCTI, is the choice of Cid Gomes for the Ministry of Education: in the past, Gomes voted against the institution of a lower limit on the salaries of teachers on public education – his justification was, and I paraphrase, that teachers “should work for love, and not for money.” Some of the heavy criticism on Rousseff comes from her decisions going completely against what the people [who voted for her] were expecting. But you know, I’m not a politician, much less the president, so maybe there is something to it, maybe she has a strategy; maybe there was no one better than these guys (to be honest, I don’t know); maybe I am nitpicking with these new ministers, and they are actually really good choices. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Or rather, do we have a choice now?

Featured image: Esplanada dos Ministérios, at Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Credit: Mateus Hidalgo on Flickr.

Brazil’s new Sci&Tech Minister: a let down

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