In DepthBrazil

Scientists protest funding bonanza for brain campus

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Science  05 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6214, pp. 1166
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6214.1166

Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has won global attention for experiments with brain-controlled prostheses—and for master minding a controversial World Cup kickoff by a paralyzed man in a robotic exoskeleton. But back home, controversy over the high-profile researcher's recent windfall has reached a boiling point. Last week, Brazil's largest scientific organization wrote a letter on behalf of more than 120 scientific societies questioning the federal government's decision to invest roughly U.S. $100 million in the Campus of the Brain, the neuroscience research and education initiative in rural northern Brazil spearheaded by Nicolelis.

According to Nicolelis, the funding provided by Brazil's Ministry of Education will cover operational costs over the next 4 years for the campus's health and education efforts and for its several dozen neuroscience research laboratories. The money is not being taken out of anyone else's pot, he stresses. “These funds do not come from annual federal research money—this is new money, a new appropriation.”

Yet the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) argues that the nation's entire scientific community should have been given a chance to compete for the funding. “Allocating substantial resources for an ad-hoc initiative without, to our knowledge, the initiative having been vetted according to the scientific policies currently in effect represents a serious breach of protocol,” the group writes.

The near-complete building in Macaíba, Brazil, that will hold 30 neuroscience laboratories.

PHOTO: MIGUEL NICOLELIS

Few knew about the large grant—it equals roughly half the value of the competitive grants being offered this year by Brazil's major research infrastructure funding agency ProInfra, SBPC writes in its letter—until months after it was awarded in July. The news broke on 4 November in the Brazilian paper, Estadão, says Paulo Saldiva, a pathologist who works for the science and technology ministry. Saldiva says that he and colleagues were so upset about the lack of discussion surrounding the grant that they are circulating a letter of complaint intended for ministry officials.

Miguel Nicolelis

INSET: ABIO BERRIEL/LATINCONTENT/GETTY IMAGES

Critics also argue that the neuroscience insitute that is part of the Campus of the Brain effort has failed to live up to expectations thus far. Launched in 2005 with a mishmash of private and federal funding—up to $50 million by some reports—the initiative has suffered from construction delays for its new buildings, as well as the exodus in 2011 of 10 principal investigators, who complained of “mismanagement” by Nicolelis and left for a separate neuroscience research center 25 km away in Natal (Science, 19 August 2011, p. 929). Frederico Graeff, a neuroscientist at the University of São Paulo, is among those unimpressed by the fledgling research institute's scientific productivity. “Any of us showing its record to a funding agency at the end of a grant would not get a single extra cent,” he says.

Some Brazilian researchers attribute the new funding to Nicolelis's close contacts with powerful officials within the federal government. “Overall, the sense I get from my fellow Brazilian colleagues is the feeling that Miguel is benefiting from unfair access to the higher echelons of our federal government, when everyone else must go through the regular channels,” says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Nicolelis says that the Campus of the Brain was awarded its grant through the same mechanism used to form other large scientific institutes throughout Brazil. Facilities such as the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory in Campinas and the National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Rio de Janeiro were created without extensive peer review, he says. He adds that the new grant is comparable in size to those awarded for other large science infrastructure projects. “These institutes receive similar contracts on the order of hundreds of millions of Reais,” he says. “They are outstanding and when they were created I do not remember any protest at all. Why the protests now?”

Nicolelis pins some of the discontent on geographic rivalries. In 2011, more than 60% of the Brazilian National Research Council's budget went to the more developed south and southeastern regions, he notes. “Our project helps decentralize the scientific infrastructure of the country and this severe inequality,” Nicolelis says. “Not surprisingly, most of our critics come from the southeast.” Graeff counters that other projects have boosted science in Brazil's northeast and north “without spending huge amounts of money and making overstated advertisements.”

Nicolelis says that such criticisms miss the broader social value of the Campus of the Brain, such as the prenatal care and schooling it is providing for roughly 1500 local children per year. “For any scientist worth his or her salt to complain about something like that is shameful,” he says.

As Science went to press, Brazil's government had not yet responded to SBPC's letter. SBPC President Helena Nader, however, has requested a face-to-face meeting with the minister of education.

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