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Far-right candidate Javier Milei launches attack on Argentina’s scientific community

The presidential front-runner says the government will stop funding research if he is elected

Javier Milei
Presidential candidate Javier Milei gestures during an interview on the political TV show 'A Dos Voces' on June 14, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.Tomas Cuesta (Getty Images)

After his victory in Argentina’s primary elections on August 13, far-right candidate Javier Milei made the rounds on television to build momentum for the October 22 general elections. In several recent interviews, Milei took aim at the scientific community and said if elected, he would eliminate the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and privatize the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the government agency that directs most of the scientific and technical research done in universities and institutes. Argentina’s scientific community quickly struck back and called Milei’s proposal “ridiculous” and “ignorant.”

“It [scientific research] should be done by the private sector. They [scientists] can earn a living by serving others,” Milei said in one TV interview. He then presented an organization chart of the government and began crossing out the ministries he intends to eliminate — Health, Education, Social Development and Science. “What do they do anyway?” he asked rhetorically. Later on, Milei sharpened his attack. “CONICET has 35,000 people, while NASA [the U.S. space agency] has only 17,000. To me, it feels like it doesn’t quite match up with what NASA does... As it is right now, we have to shut it down.”

In response, the scientific community stepped up to defend CONICET, an independent agency under the Ministry of Science, which has 11,800 researchers, 11,800 fellows, 2,900 technicians, and 1,500 administrative staff. They roundly criticized Milei’s position, and called it a “provocation,” quoting Bernardo Houssay, Argentina’s first Nobel laureate and CONICET’s first president in 1958: “Science is not expensive — ignorance is expensive.” A protest march is scheduled for August 18.

In the 21st century, it is absurd not to support science and technology, according to CONICET director Ana Franchi. “CONICET plays a crucial role in training human resources, not only within organizations and universities but also in companies engaged in significant technological advancements. For instance, we have successfully developed drought-resistant seeds, leading to the listing of Bioceres on the New York Stock Exchange. And the anti-viral facemasks we developed during the pandemic are now being exported and bring in vital foreign exchange,” Franchi said in a recent radio interview.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Daniel Filmus also backed the organization’s work, noting that regressing in these areas would be very detrimental to Argentina. “Countries that invest the most in science tend to achieve greater development, productivity and social integration,” he posted on social media. Filmus also posted data on X (formerly Twitter) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that shows South Korea, Austria, Norway and Germany as the leading nations in innovation and development investment.

According to data from the OECD, Argentina’s research and development (R&D) allocation as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from 0.37% in 1996 to 0.52% in 2020. However, state investment in R&D has been inconsistent. In the 1990s, President Carlos Menem cut budgets and closed several scientific centers and institutes, triggering a researcher exodus from Argentina. Menem’s Minister of Economy Domingo Cavallo spitefully told a CONICET scientist demanding better wages to go wash dishes for a living.

“No country can achieve growth without investing in research,” said President Néstor Kirchner upon taking office in 2003. According to government data, the number of researchers increased from 3,500 to over 10,000 during Kirchner’s term. Conservative President Mauricio Macri appeared to agree with Kirchner, but then demoted the Ministry of Science to a secretariat and defunded research projects, salaries and scholarships. The pendulum swung back when President Alberto Fernández took office and elevated the ministry to its former status. Some discontent continues to linger, as scientists demand better scholarships and denounce the organization’s politicization.

Molecular biologist Alberto Kornblihtt, a CONICET researcher and member of science academies in Argentina, the United States, France and Latin America, responded to Milei in an August 17 column in the Página/12 newspaper. Kornblihtt outlined the achievements of Argentine researchers with a mere 0.35% budget allocation: innovative facemasks, satellites, drugs and more. “Naturally, these measures alone may not provide immediate solutions to the critical issues faced by most of our people who currently struggle to meet their basic needs... However, closing CONICET or endorsing extreme right-wing ideologies do not offer viable solutions either,” wrote Kornblihtt.

Diego Golombek, a biologist and CONICET researcher, argued in a recent interview that Milei’s understanding of the political system is lacking and displays ignorance regarding privatization. ”The space race and the development of vaccines relied on an active and engaged state that eventually transferred that knowledge to the private sector. Is there a lot to accomplish? Certainly. We must strengthen the relationship between the scientific system and the productive sector,” he said. “However, without a robust scientific system, a country will stagnate. Without CONICET, ministries and universities, who will undertake research on Chagas disease or the pollution in our rivers? It is the dedicated scientists within our system, which fortunately operates very effectively.”

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