Science and technology. Who needs them, right? Curing cancer. Enabling flight. Spinning particles. Bah. Give us mumps and measles, caves and darkness.

That is at least how some scientists in Argentina see the attitude of President Mauricio Macri’s administration, as they accuse the government of slashing the science and technology budget for next year. The move not only means that Macri would be breaking a campaign promise but also, these scientists warn, would put at risk much of the progress that has been made in the sector since the 2001 economic collapse.

With the 2017 budget that it has presented Congress, the administration is slashing the budget in almost all areas in the sector, adding up to an “11-billion-peso shortfall” for science and technology, Luis Manuel Tiscorni, a professor and researcher at University of La Plata and secretary general at national science and technology union CONADU, told The Bubble.

The budget earmarks about 14 billion pesos for the Science and Technology Ministry. This amounts to 0.59 percent of the total national budget, a decrease on previous years — and also a broken campaign promise, considering Macri vowed to dedicate 1.5 percent of his budget to science.

According to a report by Fernando Stefani, experimental physics professor at the University of Buenos Aires, and vice-president of The Bionanosciences Institute at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), it dramatically steps up a three-year trend of budget decreases for science, reducing the science budget to 2011 levels — a heavy blow in the face of rampant inflation and the devaluation of the peso.

Scientists are speaking up about their concern and last week several thousand of them marched to Congress to repudiate the cuts. They have also prepared a petition called “Let’s Defend Science,” which already has about 30,000 signatures.

“Less money means we can’t continue researching,” Roberto Salvarezza, CONICET president from 2012 to December 2015, told The Bubble. He says the cuts will have a deep and widespread effect across the sector: “98 percent of organizations will be underfunded.”.

According to Tiscorni, who splits his time between research and teaching, the impact will be felt across the scientific community, but the specifics will depend on the organization. “Those at CONICET [National Scientific and Technical Research Council] say it will prevent the entry of new researchers into the organization,” Tiscorni told The Bubble. “Whereas the INTS [National Agricultural Technology Institute] runs the risk of losing 700 professionals. Meanwhile, the universities, responsible for the vast majority of research in Argentina, would have to freeze all grant funding.”

Scientists protesting cuts outside biotechnology research institute, taken from Facbook.
Scientists protesting cuts outside biotechnology research institute, taken from Facebook.

Young scientists in the spotlight

There is particular fear about the impact of the cuts on the careers of young scientists. Early Career Researchers at IMTA, an institute that investigates issues to do with agriculture, published an open letter on Facebook, describing the way the cuts would impact them. “[We] are worried by the uncertainty of our future once we end our training period, given that, in many cases, grants constitute the only source of income and support for our homes,” they wrote.

All this creates fear of a brain drain, a sore spot for a country still traumatized by previous decades of neglect in science and technology. “We’ve experienced many mass exoduses of scientists,” says Juan Pablo Paz, a physicist and founding member of Science and Technology Argentina, an organization that opposes cuts to the sector. Paz was sure to point out that at various times throughout Argentina’s history, government policy has forced scientists to flee to countries with healthier research environments.

Those who are pushing the defense like to recall the case of Dr. René  Favaloro. Celebrated as a national hero for his groundbreaking work on heart bypass surgery, Favaloro committed suicided in 2000, apparently pushed to the edge in part by corruption in the health system and a lack of funding in science. “May history never repeat itself,” reads a poster for the “Let’s Defend Argentine Science” campaign, alongside Favaloro’s  picture.

Poster for Let's defend science campaign with rene favarola, Source Facebook
Poster for Let’s defend science campaign with Rene Favarolo, Source Facebook

Behind the use of Favaloro’s image lies a fundamental fear of many in the science community in Argentina, who say Macri could stop years of growth for the sector.

“During the last decade there was a very favorable situation for science. The sector was revitalized, many young people entered the discipline, lots of research projects were started,” says Paz.

Salvarezza agrees: “We went from 3,000 researchers at CONICET in 2003 to 10,800 in 2013.” In contrast, the new government has sent “a clear political message” that it will not invest in science and technology.

Raquel Chan, founding member of Ciencia y Tecnica and inventor of drought resistant seeds, a breakthrough some attribute to the previous funding regime
Raquel Chan, founding member of Ciencia y Tecnica and much celebrated inventor of drought resistant seeds, a breakthrough some attribute to the previous funding regime. Source: El Litoral.

Tiscorni, however, is quick to warn that those who think it was all rosy under the previous government are suffering from a bit of short-term memory loss. The cuts had already started under the administration of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “Last year we complained the science budget was too low.”

More than cash

Though scientists may be focusing on the amount of money the sector receives, at the end of the day the debate is about more than just funding — it’s also about the role of science in the public sphere and society. And that is what is deeply troubling for many, who say the latest budget represents a sinister change in the way that science and technology are conceived of and developed in Argentina.

These campaigners for more funding say science isn’t something you can isolate in the ivory tower, but rather indissolubly connected to the economic, political and social project of a country. The latest budget represents a move away from that idea.

In response to these fears, Science and Technology Minister Luis Barañao has said he sympathizes with scientists, but argues there is no “cause for concern” at this stage. “There’s always been political support [for science] and they assure me that in this administration it will continue,” he said in a radio interview. Barañao claiims the budget will be increased throughout the year, as has happened in previous years.

Barañao, the sole member of Fernández de Kirchner’s Cabinet to stay on in Macri’s administration, indicated he would quit if he believed the funding for the sector would be systematically cut. “I will not be complicit in the destruction of something so valuable for the country and for me personally,” he said.

For now, scientists are taking a wait-and-see approach. Their protests seem to have at least had some sort of effect, as the government is reportedly increasing the amount it devotes to science in the budget — though by less than AR$1 billion, a drop in the bucket of what the scientists have been demanding.

At the very least, these scientists say, they are letting Argentines know what’s going on, and they will continue doing whatever they can to ensure the country keeps on prioritizing science and technology research and development. “The fight for our future scientific legacy continues. It’s something we’re all a part of,” reads the Let’s Defend Argentine Science Facebook page.