Opinion – Suzana Herculano-Houzel: Investing in science is not for the corrupt


I had promised more dinosaurs this week, I know. But it will have to wait until the end of the month, because today this column is busy, adhering to the Serrapilheira Institute’s #science in elections campaign, in partnership with Maranta Intellectual Politics. I am the one who occupies it, wearing my hat as a political-scientific agitator on duty, which I have used recently to remind young doctoral students that whether or not there is science in Brazil is in their hands, the researchers in fact who move knowledge.

I would like to take the opportunity to extend the previous argument to the parents of the so-called young people – because, by financing the living costs of their research children, it is the parents of young Brazilians who still insist on doing science in Brazil who pay for the little science that still exists in the country. Who to send the bill to?

For the government, obviously. Science is the systematic process of seeking knowledge, and knowledge is what we accumulate over the course of our individual lives, but we are lucky enough to live long enough to pass what we learn from one generation to the next, so that we don’t one needs to reinvent the wheel each time one would come in handy.

Knowledge accumulated through generations is what we call culture; knowledge that further solves problems faster, leaving more time for other matters, including increasingly complex problems, is what we call technology. And just as culture defines a nation, technology makes a nation sovereign. Hence: the account, I mean, the investment rests with the government, financed by the taxes collected.

The problem is that investing in science doesn’t line any politician’s pockets. Except when applied very hard, made by jet at the cost of a lot of money to get the world out of a pandemic (and even then only because pharmaceutical companies rightly relied on it to clog their coffers), science does not provide an immediate financial return. Science is a long-term investment. Building scientific capacity in a country requires the understanding that the process, both on the human side and on the infrastructure and technology sides, takes generations, and starts with basic research. You can’t cure a virus without first understanding how a virus works.

Therefore, a self-respecting marketer will never tell his employer to invest in science, or make it his political platform: who will reap the return on investment will be the following generations, too late for the politician to be elected or reelected. Above all, corrupt politicians have no reason to be interested in investing in building a country’s scientific capacity.

Corruption is, by definition, tampering with a process for self-gain, and corrupt people want cash, not promissory notes. What a nation profits from its scientific sovereignty comes gradually, and it does not fit into the pockets of politicians who are only interested in exchanging favors to move up in the plateau.

Investing in science is not something for corrupt politicians. Politicians, here is my challenge: show that you are not corrupt. It is only necessary to invest in rebuilding science in Brazil.

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