Since the end of May, Brazilian scientists have been unable to import materials for research with tax exemption. As a result, the activities of the main scientific centers in the country had to stop or ended up being impacted by the increase in expenses.
On the 14th, research pro-rectors at USP, Unicamp and Unesp sent a letter to the minister of Science and Technology, Marcos Pontes, asking for the usual values of the import quota to be recovered.
“This reduction is seriously affecting hundreds of research projects in progress”, stated the pro-rectors, on behalf of Cruesp (Council of Rectors of São Paulo State Universities). “We should mention that, among these affected projects, there are several dedicated to obtaining a national vaccine, as well as drugs to fight Covid-19.”
The import quota allows, through the CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development), institutions, companies and scientists to import, exempt from fees, equipment, accessories and raw materials intended for scientific and technological research.
In 2020, the value of the exemption quota was US$ 300 million (more than R$ 1.5 billion, in current values). In 2021, the quota was only US$ 93.29 million (just over R$ 482 million).
In recent months, several scientific institutions in the country have contacted both Marcos Pontes and the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, to explain the scale of the problem should the exemptions not be resumed.
“The development and progress of hundreds of studies depend on acquisitions of these materials in the foreign market, including those related to the search for an ongoing national vaccine, as well as other essential drugs to combat Covid-19 and other pathologies”, they stated, in June, eight of the main scientific entities in the country, in letters sent to Guedes and Pontes.
Among the signatory institutions are the ABC (Brazilian Academy of Sciences), the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science) and the Confies (National Council of Support Foundations for Higher Education and Scientific and Technological Research Institutions).
Also in January, the CNPq itself even sent an official letter to the Ministry of Economy to reinstate the quota, as shown in Lauro Jardim’s blog in O Globo newspaper.
“As the amount was already defined in the PLOA [Projeto de Lei Orçamentária Anual] and, given the impossibility of correcting it, it was kept in the ordinance, but with the commitment of the Ministries of Science, Technology and Innovation, and of the Economy to urgently seek a solution to the budget problem,” the council said in press release in January.
So far, however, such efforts have not had any effect, while research has already stopped due to the end of the quota this year.
“For me, this is the slow death of research. It’s suffocation. You kill a laboratory if you can’t purchase key equipment”, says Fernando Peregrino, executive director of Fundação Coppetec/UFRJ and president of Confies.
Folha had access to lists of a portion of the projects that had been stopped or had been impacted by some universities in the country. Among them are UnB, UFPR (Federal University of Paraná), UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and Furg (Federal University of Rio Grande).
At UnB (University of Brasília), Covid’s studies were impacted. One of them seeks to evaluate the use of plasma taken from the blood of patients recovered from Covid in the treatment of the disease. In this case, the material was imported even without tax exemption, that is, with payment of taxes, due to the urgency of the pandemic moment.
Laboratory kits, spare parts and machinery are among other items that, in general, stopped projects that awaited their duty-free imports.
Even Sirius, the Brazilian electron accelerator, under the responsibility of Cnpem (National Center for Research in Energy and Materials), is directly impacted by the end of the quota. At the inauguration of the accelerator, President Jair Bolsonaro (non-party) asked: “Considering the large companies that can benefit from this work, why don’t we make this place the Silicon Valley of biotechnology?”
Also part of Cnpem, the LNBio (National Biosciences Laboratory), which carries out research on Covid-19, has also been affected.
Another place impacted was the Brazilian Laboratory for Doping Control, according to Peregrino.
The laboratory, located at UFRJ, was used for anti-doping tests for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, in Rio de Janeiro. In addition to it, Ladetec (Technological Development Support Laboratory), as a whole, of which the doping area is a part, has encountered operating difficulties due to the end of the quota.
“The biological area requires a lot of materials and substances”, says Peregrino. “This is an affected laboratory that lives off imports,” he says, referring to the doping laboratory.
The president of Confies affirms that a resolution to the problem was suggested for last week, but it did not materialize. According to him, a situation like the current one is inconceivable for a nation with Brazil’s pattern of development.
“It’s wasting away [as equipes de pesquisa]. It loses the ability to leverage money, to train students, it loses prestige, it stops publishing, it stops producing. It’s suffocation,” says Peregrino.
Giuseppe Romito, a professor at the USP School of Dentistry, was another one who had his research halted by the end of his quota and had to stop his clinical project, carried out in partnership with the University of Zurich (Switzerland).
“We do everything that is encouraged. International partnerships, with excellent research centers and everything else. And then, when the time comes when we get the material to import, we can’t because the quota is over,” says Romito. “You lose trust with your partners. People are also planned out there.”
These are just some of the projects and labs affected by the end of the quota. The Brazilian entities that usually make greater use of the quota are the Butantan Institute and Fiocruz —through its supporting foundation, Fiotec—, those responsible for the production of vaccines against Covid that are guiding the fight against the pandemic in Brazil in 2021.
The impact on both Butantan and Fiocruz, however, did not lead to stoppages in projects. Butantan, in a statement, states that, since the end of the quota, “it started to rely on its own resources and other sources of support, not interrupting any of its projects”.
In the projects carried out by Fiocruz together with Fiotec (a foundation that benefits from the exemption), the situation is similar, with other sources of budget not to paralyze the research. In 2020, of the US$ 300 million quota of exemption for imports, Fiocruz/Fiotec used about US$ 48 million. In these years, the foundation used US$ 16.6 million of the US$ 93 million made available to the country.
“This quota reduction has a direct impact [nos projetos tocados junto à fundação de apoio], impacts in different areas and in meeting the demands of the SUS”, says Priscila Ferraz, deputy vice president of management and institutional development at Fiocruz, who recalls the various health sectors in which the institution’s projects operate.
According to Ferraz, in the case of Fiotec, the impact of the end of the quota is systemic. “Anyway, there is the loss, the slowdown,” he says. She emphasizes, however, the search to minimize impacts.
She points out that, without the exemption, there may be an increase in costs of 20% to 40%.
In the cases of some projects, the Brazilian government itself may end up having additional expenses arising from the absence of the import quota.
Folha sought out the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the CNPq, but until the publication of this report, it had not received a response from these bodies.