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How government cuts could paralyze research in Brazil in Antarctica

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In the austral summer 2019/2020, Brazil is expected to conduct the 38th Antarctic Operation (Operantar XXXVI), an Antarctic research expedition, which has been taking place since 1982, as part of Proantar (Brazilian Antarctic Program). As has rarely happened, however, budget cuts and contingencies imposed by the current federal government In the areas of science and education, they jeopardize the continuity of the work of Brazilian scientists in those icy places.

Many researchers and fellows will no longer be able to participate in Operantar XXXVI, which will open the new EACF (Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station), and research projects could be paralyzed from next year.

A deserted and freezing expanse of 14 million square kilometers – one and a half times the area of ​​Brazil – where the temperature can reach almost 90ºC, with winds of over 320 kilometers per hour, and almost no rain could be considered only an inhospitable and strange region, of interest to few, as adventurers, lovers of good photos, penguins and the oddities of planet Earth. It is a big mistake.

"Despite being better known for the presence of ice and snow, Antarctica has complex ecosystems, many of them little known and even some unknown," says researcher Luiz Henrique Rosa, from UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), project coordinator MycoAntar do Proantar, which studies fungi with possible medicinal properties.

According to him, these ecosystems harbor unique living beings adapted to the extreme conditions of the region and which are geographically isolated from the rest of the planet. "In other words, Antarctica has a biodiversity little known to science," he explains. "Being out of touch with the outside world, these organisms, represented by animals, plants and especially microorganisms, have the potential to produce substances of interest in biotechnological processes."

They can be compared to living factories capable of producing different bioactive substances, including many with different biological activities.

"In 12 years of research, our group has already discovered wild species of fungi producing antimicrobial, antiviral (against dengue virus), trypanosomicide (which act against Trypanossoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas disease) and pesticides (capable of inhibit other fungi and weeds for agriculture), "says Rosa. "That is, Proantar's scientific activities have great potential to contribute to Brazil's productive sector and medicine, for example."

Global Climatic Importance

Glaciologist Jefferson Cardia Simões, from UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), vice president of Scar (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research), the highest organ of international Antarctic research, recalls another aspect that reinforces the importance of research in Antarctica. According to him, the continent plays a key role in the world's currents and climate, which in turn influence, for example, marine wealth and agricultural performance. "Polar regions are as important as the tropics in the global environmental system," he says.

This is, according to him, because the atmospheric and oceanic circulation and, consequently, the terrestrial climate system, results from the transfer of energy from the tropics to the polar regions. "The processes that occur there affect us and vice versa," he explains.

"Cold fronts, for example, that can reach the southern Amazon, are generated in the Southern Ocean. Thanks to Antarctic research, we will improve the weather forecast in Brazil, essential if we want to increase our agricultural productivity and lower the social cost of So I insist on the phrase, in which the Brazilian is not yet conditioned to think: Antarctica is as important as the Amazon to the planetary environment. "

But not only that. Beyond the scientific importance, there is a geopolitical aspect that Brazil cannot overlook. Antarctica has the largest reservoir of drinking water in the world and can certainly have mineral riches under the everlasting ice sheet, which in some places can reach up to 5 km thick.

Today, it is the only continent that does not belong to any country. In order for some nations in the future to have the right to exploit these riches, the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates all activities on the continent, was signed in 1959 by 19 countries, stating that it should be used only for peaceful and international cooperation purposes. for the development of scientific research.

The document, which came into force in 1961, was signed by Brazil in 1975, initially as a member. The country only began its research on the frozen continent, however, in the southern summer of 1982/1983, with Operation Antarctica I.

Right to vote and veto

The main result of this first expedition was the acceptance of Brazil, on September 12, 1983, as an advisory member of the treaty, that is, with the right to vote and veto, the privilege of only 28 other countries. "To guarantee this right, Article IV of the Treaty states that countries must conduct continuous and meaningful research in Antarctica," says biologist Paulo Câmara, from UnB (University of Brasilia), who has been conducting research on the continent for 6 years. "What a lack of resources can put at risk."

To this end, Brazil built EAFC, which opened on February 6, 1984, in Admiralty Bay, on King George Island, in the South Shetlands Archipelago, north of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Initially it had eight container-like modules, numbering 62, with relatively comfortable facilities with varying-sized compartments, including 13 laboratories for the biological, atmospheric and chemical sciences, and housing that could accommodate up to 58 people, library, computer room, infirmary and a small operating room, exercise room and even vehicle workshops.

At dawn on February 25, 2012 it was destroyed by a fire, which started at 2 am and killed two military men trying to put out the fire. A new base has been built, which should open in January next year. It is practically ready, measuring 4,500 square meters and one of the most modern in Antarctica.

The new EACF will have 17 laboratories, ultrafreezers for storage of samples collected by the researchers, as well as living and leisure spaces and can house up to 65 people.

It is not enough, however. It alone does not guarantee Brazilian research in Antarctica. Resources are needed to fund them. Otherwise there is a risk of having a base but no studies in Antarctica. Hence the concern of the scientific community with budget cuts.

"Last year, an announcement of R $ 18 million was opened for scientific research, touted as the largest in recent years," says House. "This amount should fund the activities for four years, which would give about $ 4.5 million per year."

That amount has been reduced, however. "With the change of government, immediately $ 2 million were not applied," says House.

"It would be scholarships from CAPES (Higher Education Personnel Improvement Coordination), which were already engaged." Until today I did not understand what happened to them. My best explanation is that they simply disappeared, leaving the announcement with only $ 16 million overnight. Grants are critical to the project's progress, particularly for human resources training and brain drain. "

In addition, continues the House, recently the other scholarships were contingent (minus $ 3.7 million), causing an even greater loss.

"The much-publicized announcement of R $ 18 million now stands at about R $ 12 million, which gives about R $ 3 million per year to support 17 projects. That is, we are again in a situation of shortage, in which there is a risk stop Antarctic research for lack of resources. "

Notice

Wanted by BBC Brazil, the MCTIC (Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications) did not directly answer the questions sent to it. Through his press office, he sent a standard note, citing the R $ 18 million announcement, to which Câmara referred. It also adds funds released in years prior to 2018, in the total amount of R $ 5.5 million, which have already been spent.

The text recognizes that "for now there is no forecast of new features". The note also states that "it is important to highlight MCTIC's continued support for Proantar and the Ministry's consideration for Antarctic science and the efficient and committed conduct of the academic community involved in the Program. These are years in which, despite fiscal constraints, Proantar has kept uninterrupted ".

For the scientific community is little. "The situation may be worse in the medium and long term for Antarctic research in 2020, as the government has signaled even deeper cuts in research and education," laments Rosa.

"Proantar will have its scientific activities compromised, which can generate immeasurable damage in terms of Brazil's participation in the Antarctic Treaty, in which it has the right to vote on the future of about 10% of the world, Antarctica. It is noteworthy that in none another world forum the country has such prestige and voting power, with the same weight as the United States, Russia and China for example. "

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