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Guest Blog: Kafkaesque Bureaucracies Impede Import of Scientific Goods in Brazil

PLoS Biology invited Mauro Rebelo, of Instituto de Biofísica Carlos Chagas Filho, and Stevens Rehen, of Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, to describe the "nightmare" facing Brazilian researchers, who can wait as long as two years for Customs to release their research supplies.

Kafkaesque Bureaucracies Impede Import of Scientific Goods in Brazil

Mauro Rebelo1 & Stevens Rehen2 Instituto de Biofísica Carlos Chagas Filho1 e Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas2 Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil, 21949-590, srehen@anato.ufrj.br

Brazil is left behind in the run for scientific development due to bureaucratic procedures to release reagents and equipment by customs.

An advertisement fixed at the door of a laboratory in the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the biggest Federal University in Brazil, says: Position available for undergraduate student, prerequisites are: good grades, free time and ‘a lot of passion’ for the job.

It is not euphemism: Being a scientist in Brazil requires much more than a scientific mind. Extra doses of perseverance, creativity, and especially patience are necessary just to get one’s supplies.

Science is technically demanding and it is impossible to be competitive without using state-of-art methods. Brazilian scientists know this very well. Since most of the life science research companies are located in developed countries; the huge majority of the reagents come from abroad. It is easy to purchase the products from the companies. The nightmare starts when the supplies arrive at the customs.

Despite anecdotal stories about the negative consequences of red tape for science in Brazil, some of them already discussed elsewhere (Rehen 2004; Triunfol and Mervis 2004), there has been no data to support this assertion. Here we present for the first time results describing the impact of bureaucracies for the development of Brazilian science.

Biomedical scientists working in Brazil were invited by the Brazilian Federation of Societies of Experimental Biology (FeSBE) and the Brazilian Society for Neuroscience and Behavior (SBNeC) to fill a simple survey at the SBNeC website. Eighty-eight scientists from 16 different Research Institutes and Universities spread over 7 different states participated.

All of them declared the need to import supplies for their research, the majority at least once a month (figure 1A). Perishable items, which require special transportation and storage, make up approximately 70% of imported reagents (figure 1B).

Figure 1C shows that more than 90% of the researchers wait at least 3 months to receive their imported supplies. Since the majority of the required items are perishable, this waiting time risks expiration at the Custom’s desk. In extreme cases (8%), it took as long as 2 years to have the supplies released by Customs.

In 2004, after a fruitful discussion between the Brazilian scientific community and Government, an Express Program to import scientific equipment (Importa Fácil) was created to allow National Research Council (CNPq)-certified scientists to import reagents and equipment faster than before. Unfortunately, several drawbacks, including weight and cost limits (maximum of 30 kilograms, up to USD 15,000) and the exclusion of perishable goods, limited the use of the program to 8% of the scientific community (Figure 1D). Moreover, the scenario described in figures 1 A, B and C explains why 14% of the researchers still prefer to bring goods in their handbags to avoid the unreliable bureaucratic systems (Figure 1D). Despite of being risky, there are few alternatives when “members of the laboratory need reagents to finish his/her thesis within the timeframe defined by the Brazilian Funding Agencies”, said one of the participants.

A Professor of São Paulo State University also said: “…our antibodies had been imprisoned for almost 3 months by the airport authorities. Even after that period, the agents would not release [the antibodies] since they were already out of date (the datasheet said that the validity at 4oC was no longer than 1 month). I had to beg them to let me at least test the reagents before incineration”.

The National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) was pointed out by the Brazilian scientific community as the primary culprit for the testified delays (Figure 1E). ANVISA is a financially autonomous sanitary authority operating under a special regime with an independently administered Board. Its mission is to protect and promote health, ensure the hygiene and safety of products and services, taking part in controlling the access to it. Due to the diversity of imported goods (including everything that the country imports), it is almost impossible for any of the agents to keep updated about every substance. Whenever their agents are in doubt about the risk of any substance or material, they redirect the clearance request to the Central Office at the Ministry of Health, which of course delays the process of clearance. As a result, they forward basically all requests of reagents imported by the scientific community to the Ministry of Health. Meanwhile, the scientific community must pay the government a storage fee for our supplies.

We estimate that 2/3 of all the grants provided to Brazilian researchers are spent with taxes and costs related with storage and release from the customs. It means that public funding goes back to the government without being truly invested in the progress of science.

On November 20th 2007, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva passed a bill requesting no more than 90 days for the Ministries of Health and Science & Technology to solve the problems described above. Thereafter, ANVISA presented new regulations regarding the import of scientific supplies, which may still falls short. Despite being the choice for scientists all over the world, express couriers are prohibited in this case and only the Brazilian postal service can be used. Moreover, rules to discriminate reagents exclusively used in a research laboratory from the ones used in clinical trials or by hospitals are not clear. Finally, the creation of special ports and facilities to storage scientific material, including plants, animals and perishable goods, before complete release, as well as agents trained by the scientific community are so essential as new regulations proposed by the agency.

Despite the increase in scientific investment over the last 15 years (Triunfol 2007), Brazilian scientists may be left behind as consequence of this historical Kafkaesque situation, marked by a senseless and disorienting complexity in which they are immersed. The period following Lula’s statement and ANVISA’s new regulations about the import of research supplies will decide the future of Brazilian’s science.

References:

Rehen SK (2004) Scientific aid to Brazil is strangled by red tape. Nature 428:601.

Triunfol ML (2007) Latin American science moves into the spotlight. Cell 131:1213-1216.

Triunfol ML, Mervis J (2004) Miguel Nicolelis profile. Brazil institute charts a new hemisphere for neuroscience. Science 303:1131-1132.

FIGURE 1.

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Discussion
  1. Oh God, how disappointing it is to hear that, over and over again. How heard it can be to get a functional and feasible system for importing science goods?
    And you guys have mentioned something that I had never thought about..that most of the money set for science goes back to the government, via customs and storage fees. Very interesting…This certainly deserves a deeper investigation…

    Marcia Triunfol

  2. Being a brazilian native working in the US, I feel really sad to find out that this problem still persists. As a graduate from Sao Paulo University (RP), in many occasions, I relied on miraculous shipments coming into the lab as a gift from my supervisor daugther who lived in Europe. I will sacrifice my “privacy” by revealing that this happened about 20 YEARS ago. It really requires an enourmous creative mind and ability to adapt. Well, from this propective, we gain some advantage but I am not sure for what use. It is absolutely unacceptable.

  3. At the end of last year (2007) the brazilian customs and the Sanitary authorities released a new regulation to reduce time spend in control of scientific material imported by scientists. We are conducting a survey on how importing is working after this regulations. If you want to participate, you are welcome at http://www.bioletim.org.

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