"Yes to public science!" Via "Defendamos la ciencia" Facebook page

Is science under attack in Argentina? Or has it simply been given a reality check?

Social media has been inflame with the news that CONICET, the country’s leading scientific funding body, will be slashing the intake of new scientists by 60% in 2017, as a result of a 30% decrease in the science budget.

This means that, in 2017, the organization will only be able to finance fellowships for 455 young career researchers, as opposed to the 943 it awarded last year.

For Science and Technology Argentina (CYTA), a group of “concerned” scientists that formed in January 2016 in response to the election of market-friendly Mauricio Macri, “this will be the least number of incoming scientists in the last decade, taking CONICET back to pre-2004 levels, when the strategic plan to recuperate its scientific base was first put in place.”

However, according to the Director of CONICET, Alejandro Ceccatto, these complaints distort the reality. Ceccatto, a physicist who assumed his role in December of 2015, criticised the previous government, who he said augmented the number of entrants with little regard to budgetary constraints.

“You can’t make the comparison [between 2015 and 2017] “, he said at a press conference earlier today, because ” [last year] there was no budget in CONICET to support the number of incoming scientists.”

He was backed by Science and Technology Minister, Lino Barañao, the only Minister from the previous government to continue in his role, who has said that the budget cuts were inevitable given the urgent need to reduce spending across all portfolios in the face of ballooning fiscal deficit, recession and high inflation.

“All Ministries underwent an adjustment, expect the ones who require short-term prioritization, like ANSES” he said in an interview with Radio La Plata. “An understandable logic given 30 percent poverty in Argentina.”

This has unleashed a debate about the role of science in society, the relationship between science, technology and economic development, the legacy of the previous government, and the role of the State in promoting science.

Via Defendamos La Ciencia Argentina Facebook page
Via Defendamos La Ciencia Argentina Facebook page

The Kirchner Years – A Scientific Renaissance?

The governments of Nestor Kirchner and then his wife Cristina put science and technology at the center of their vision for Argentina. The idea was to create a vibrant, productive Argentine scientific sector that was at the service of the pueblo; to to foster Argentine scientists who would stay in the country and contribute to a self-sustaining economy. Science – very much the business of the State – would be tied to ensuring economic and technological sovereignty.

And so their administrations invested generously in research and development (at least for a decade – as many point out, the first cuts to the science budget occurred in 2013, under the Kirchner government). Between 2004 to 2015, research and development expenditure went from 0.40 percent in 2004 to 0.75 percent as a percentage of GDP. Not bad for a developing economy; but still conservative when compared to research leaders like Israel and Korea, which spend 4.06 and 4.15 respectively.

The change was dramatic: in 2002, there were 3,000 scientists at CONICET; by 2015, that number was more than 9,000. Moreover, some of the brains drained away by the policies of the 90s were retapped, with 1300 scientists returning home via the “Roots” program. What’s more the numbers of young scientists shot up (see graph below, which demonstrates a jump from 500 to 3000 under 39 year old scientists to more between 2003 and 2015.)

Variation in age distribution of researchers at CONICET (Year and age), showing a big increase in early career researchers. From Sector En Cifras, from CONICET web page, via CyTA
Variation in age distribution of researchers at CONICET (Year and age), showing a big increase in researchers under age 39. From Sector En Cifras, from CONICET web page, via CyTA

For many, it was an exciting time to be an Argentine scientist, fostering a renewed sense of pride and optimism. This enthusiasm is captured in an affectionate letter from esteemed “National Investigator” and physicist, Juan Pablo Paz, to CFK. He wrote “we lived twelve years that we will never forget, which have forged an activist spirit which will never die.”

…Or A Flawed Model?

There are many who would argue that government spending – across most portfolios – was simply unsustainable under the last government, with public spending increasing by 88% between 2004 and 2015, and going from 17.4 to 32.7% of GDP.

Moreover, while many recognize the achievements of the past decade, they also highlight problems in the previous administration’s strategy.

Science Minister, Lino Barañao, who supports this year’s budget cut, has pointed out that the master plan was incomplete because it both failed to link research to innovation and effectively engage the private sector. While recognizing that the government did a good job of investing in basic research, he has said  “I think there’s a second part missing [to the plan], which is how this can really improve the economy and society of the country.”

In reference to a report prepared by the OECD about Latin American countries, he said that Argentina produces more doctoral researchers than the system can absorb. “In Argentina we have about 1200 new scholars a year and 300 researchers who enter these systems.” Which is to say, it’s all very well and good to pour money into basic science, but if you don’t have a private sector that can pay salaries and laboratory cost or find a use for many of these scientists’ discoveries, then you haven’t found a worthwhile or sustainable model.

Lino Barañao, via Politica Argentina
Lino Barañao, via Politica Argentina

For Barañao, “it doesn’t make sense to build up a Ministry without connecting it to an economic plan.” And, whereas the previous government might have emphasized the importance of economic sovereignty and technological self-reliance, Barañao argues that science should connect Argentina to the world: “Everything that we’ve invested in brains should become a motive for investment in the country,” he said.

He argues that the previous government never managed to shift the paradigm of argentine science as a mere purveyor of culture, knowledge and high rating scientific papers (subsequently cannibalised by wealthier, more developed economies), to something that generates jobs and “solves problems”.

It would seem that the centeristist argument would advocate for the education of scientists to be structured in a way that empowers them to go beyond publishing papers and actually apply their ideas. The question remains though — what is the government’s role in the empowering process exactly?