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Defense of Amazon Deforestation Data Earns 2021 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award

Ricardo Galvão has been on the faculty of the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Physics since 1983. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Ricardo Galvão, a physicist who lost his position as director of a Brazilian science agency after defending its data on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, will receive the 2021 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The annual AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award honors scientists who have demonstrated scientific freedom and/or responsibility in particularly challenging circumstances, sometimes at risk to their professional or physical safety. When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attacked the legitimacy of a report highlighting a dramatic increase in Amazon deforestation, Galvão stood behind the figures, a decision that cost him his job.

“Professor Galvão defended sound science in the face of hostility,” said Jessica Wyndham, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS. “He acted to protect the welfare of the people of Brazil and the immense natural wonder that is the Amazon rainforest, a site of global heritage.”

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a research unit of the country’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, has an international reputation as a leader in the use of satellites to detect illegal logging and burning in tropical forests. The agency’s Real-time Deforestation Detection System can spot illegal deforestation quickly enough to give law enforcement a chance to stop it.

On July 4, 2019, led by Galvão, INPE published a report showing that there had been an 88% increase in Amazon deforestation in June 2019 compared to the same month a year prior. The report cited a possible link between Bolsonaro’s election and the pronounced increase in land degradation. Bolsonaro ran for president on a pro-development platform and began loosening environmental regulations immediately after taking office at the beginning of 2019.

In comments made to journalists on July 19, Bolsonaro accused Galvão of lying and being “at the service of some nongovernmental organization.” By that time, INPE data showed that a total of 4,701 square kilometers of land had been deforested in the first half of 2019, a drastic increase from the 2,809 square kilometers that had been cleared in the first half of 2018. Galvão forcefully denied Bolsonaro’s assertions, calling them “not suitable for a president of Brazil.”

Bolsonaro, however, continued the attack. During a press conference on August 1, he claimed that the numbers were fabricated “to strike at the name of the government and Brazil.” INPE then released a statement to “reaffirm its confidence in the quality of the data,” and Galvão was fired on August 2. He continues to serve as a professor of applied physics at the University of São Paulo, where he has worked since 1983.

Since his removal from INPE, Galvão has not stopped speaking out against what he sees as Bolsonaro’s hostility toward science. A Nature feature named him one of “ten people who mattered in science in 2019.”

“Not only as a scientist but as a citizen of Brazil, I’m very concerned about the increasing rate of deforestation in the Amazon,” Galvão said in an August 2019 interview with Eos. “The leader of any country should be aware that in scientific matters there is no authority above the sovereignty of science.”

AAAS established the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award in 1980. Achievements that it recognizes include acting to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education and public policy; and establishing important precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities of scientists or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.

Galvão will receive the award in a virtual ceremony on Feb. 10, during the 187th AAAS Annual Meeting. AAAS will begin accepting nominations for the 2022 award on April 15. More information on eligibility requirements can be found here.