Argentina’s research on the brink

A few months after the election of Argentina’s far-right president, Javier Milei, the country’s universities and research institutes are in crisis.

— Le 24 avril 2024

This is the English version of an analysis
originally published in French in February 2024.

“Science is not expensive, ignorance is”, read the signs held up by researchers in front of the Polo Cientifico [ed.: the ministry of research] on February 14, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Over the past few months, protests have become a common sight in the city. And for a good reason : the election late November of the libertarian, far-right president Javier Milei, often compared to Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, caused an earthquake. His radical program promised, among other things, a drastic reduction in public spending to offset galloping inflation — 256% by 2023 — and a reform of the state, with the elimination of many ministries, including the one allocated to research. More than three months after his election, what are the consequences for universities and research institutes, including the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (Conicet) — the country’s main science agency ?

« Some institutes can no longer pay for light, electricity or maintenance. »

Marianne González Alemán

Breathless. As soon as he took office on 10 December 2023, Javier Milei decided to freeze the budget of all public administrations. The Conicet is no exception: the funding allocated to the institution in 2023 is simply extended to 2024, despite the country’s record inflation. A budget that no longer allows the organization, which has nearly 28,000 employees — including 12,000 researchers in nearly 300 institutes — to function properly. “Some institutes can no longer pay for light, electricity or maintenance”, explains Marianne González Alemán, a researcher at the Argentine-American History Laboratory Dr. Emilio Ravignani of Conicet. This is compounded by a freeze on salaries, the impossibility of hiring, the cessation of research grants and a major campaign of redundancies. “The government has announced that it will not renew the employment contracts that expire in march for contract workers in the administrative and technical sector of the Conicet”, explains David Copello, a senior lecturer in political sociology at the Institut Catholique de Paris and an expert on Latin America. “So far, the administrative and technical staff has been reduced by 15%”, adds Marianne González Alemán.

Nepo Baby. Researchers struggle to find support from the governance of the organization. Daniel Salamone, a researcher at the Conicet but above all a friend and fervent defender of Javier Milei’s ideas, was entrusted with its management. He was appointed to the position for his experience in the private sector and for his work on cloning; Milei has four cloned dogs and has a real passion for the matter. “The best I can say about Daniel Salamone is that he is a good technologist, but he is not a wise scientist who understands the differences between basic and applied science”, says Victor A. Ramos, an emeritus researcher and president of the National Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences in Argentina. “He is not seen as someone who will block or negotiate for the Conicet”, adds Marianne González Alemán. A fact evidenced by the growing layoffs and the reduction in the number of thesis scholarships from 1,300 to 600 since his arrival.

« Javier Milei’s policy is to do nothing »

David Copello

On the benches. The same is true of the universities that declared themselves in a state of economic emergency in early February. “If the situation persists, they will have to close their doors in May”, says Marianne González Alemán. The 2.5 million students enrolled in the country’s public universities would then see their education interrupted. “This government is gradually draining our academic and scientific system of its substance”, sighs Marianne González Alemán. For Javier Milei is not content with budget cuts. As promised when he took office last December, he disbanded the ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, which supervised the Conicet among other things, and downgraded it to a mere secretariat. Then placed at its head an entrepreneur and former bank manager with no knowledge of the world of research. “He has made no public appearance, no statement about science and technology, absolutely nothing, says Marianne González Alemán. It’s only a name on a decree !”

Tango&Cash. Another concern is that the National Agency for the Promotion of Research, Technological Development and Innovation remained without a presidency until mid-March, putting at risk the 8,000 projects under its umbrella. “All these elements show that science is neither a concern nor a goal of this government”, says Marianne González Alemán. From refusing to renew contracts to turning down  increasing the budget, “Javier Milei’s policy is to do nothing”, says David Copello. Its sole objective: to show that he is reducing public spending. Despite the government’s announcement in March of a 70% increase in the universities’ operating budget — which in fact only represents 5% of their total budget — “no research policy has been announced in the short, medium or long term”, explains Marianne González Alemán.

« Science that does not provide a direct benefit to society will not be funded »

Manuel Adorni, government spokesperson

Mayday. In early March, in a letter to Javier Milei and his government, 68 Nobel prize winners from all disciplines expressed their concern that Argentine research was approaching “a dangerous precipice” and expressed “despair at the consequences that this situation could have both for the Argentine people and for the world”. While the Argentine scientists’ concerns had so far gone unanswered by the government, its spokesperson Manuel Adorni addressed their letter the following day. “Without calling into question the intellectual honesty of the Nobel Prize signatories”, he replied that “good scientific analysis” assesses the phenomena in their context, that is, that of a country “impoverished with half its population living below the poverty line”. Then added that “science that does not provide a direct benefit to society will not be funded”.

Not very woke. “Useful” versus “useless” science, opposition is common for Javier Milei’s government… with the social sciences in the firing line. The president did not deny himself very aggressive expressions against them by proclaiming, for example, that he would refuse to fund research on “Batman’s anus” from public funds. “From this point of view, Milei’s policy is entirely in line with that of the extreme right movements”, explains David Copello. At the heart of his discourse: deep anti-communism, opposition to LGBT rights, and denial of gender theory. « Social sciences are constructed as a political adversary », adds Marianne González Alemán. Caught up in “a cultural battle” initiated by the current president, Argentina’s academic and scientific system faces constant denigration. Universities are referred to as “centers of indoctrination” — witness the President’s own publication on X — and academics as “gnocchis”, a derogatory term used to refer to state employees accused of living on the hook of the state.

« If the situation does not change it will be a tragedy. »

Victor A. Ramos

Bad times. “For Milei, science has to be financed exclusively by private activity”, says Victor A. Ramos. This is a fear for social science researchers who have little means to seek private funding. “What we are doing is of no interest to the private sector, and moving in this direction considerably reduces our research thematics”, explains Marianne González Alemán. Concerns are also raising about climate-related research. Javier Milei has never hidden his climate denialism, regularly calling climate change a “socialist hoax” and arguing that a company should be able to pollute a river as it sees fit [he plans to privatize rivers and forests, ed]. “The privatization of Conicet could jeopardize some research that goes against private interests or condition some research”, says Marianne González Alemán.
Terra incognita. Argentina’s public research system, recognized internationally for the quality of its production — as evidenced by its 20th position in the SCImago ranking — is won by paralysis. “Many researchers feel discouraged and have lost their sense of purpose in their work”, says Marianne González Alemán. Without a scholarship or budget, researchers fear that young scientists will leave to seek out new horizons to pursue their careers — a phenomenon already present in Argentina because of the salaries of the profession. The alarming situation is prompting scientists to take action to put an end to redundancies, obtain more resources and avoid a freeze on research activities. “If the situation does not change, it will be a tragedy for the national university system”, concludes Victor A. Ramos.

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