Argentine science at risk as radical right-winger wins presidency
Javier Milei promised to get rid of the country’s major science funder during chaotic election campaign, but will he follow through with his promises?
In the wake of his shock election victory this month, a video of new Argentinian president Javier Milei tearing the names of government departments off a whiteboard went viral on TikTok.
It shows the right-winger – sporting a distinctive pair of huge sideburns – shouting “afuera” (get out) to 10 of the country’s 18 ministries. The tally included the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation – which, he tells the camera, belongs in the private sector – plus the Ministry of Education “and indoctrination”, as Mr Milei quips.
The rapid rise of the chaotic, chainsaw-wielding libertarian politician in a country racked by economic uncertainty has stunned Argentina’s research community, with many fearing Mr Milei’s plans to dramatically slash public spending will decimate its universities and scientific infrastructure.
On the campaign trail he promised not only to close the science ministry, but also to shut or privatise the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), one of Latin America’s most important science funders, and cut state funding for research and education to its bare bones.
“What he is proposing is very close to a dismantlement of the whole system, and it will be very hard to recover if that happens”, said Diego Golombek, a biology professor at the National University of Quilmes and a researcher at Conicet, who said he was “extremely worried” about the new regime.
“We have a good science system: it needs more budget, it needs to go more federal and help regional economies, but it is there and it has worked well for many decades, so any kind of strong measures against it will be suicidal and it will be very difficult to build it again.”
Alberto Kornblihtt, a molecular biologist at the University of Buenos Aires, likened Mr Milei’s agenda to the right-wing economic and political programme of the military dictatorships that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983, but this time with “massive popular support” and a democratic mandate, something that was “not good news” for science, universities, public health and education.
“If he keeps his promises, not only will the budget cuts for research be huge, but also institutions like Conicet risk being dismantled, with the obvious consequence of brain drain,” he said.
The directors of Conicet’s 16 science and technology research centres – which fund about 12,000 researchers – spoke out against plans to close the organisation before the election, warning in a joint statement: “We still have many challenges, many issues to improve, but it is not by cancelling the state that a better country will be achieved.”
Mr Milei has been less clear about his plans for the wider higher education system, but the national government’s control of universities’ finances makes them vulnerable.
He has proposed a plan for schools that involves taking public money and giving it to families as “educational vouchers” that they can decide how to spend, and a similar system might be considered for the country’s currently free public universities.
Gerardo Burton, an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, said it was still uncertain whether Mr Milei would go ahead with some of his more radical policies because his proposals had been “changing and moderating as his possibility of winning the election increased”. He will formally take up the role on 10 December.
“We know that there will be no science ministry and for sure funding will be heavily restricted, but that is about it. So I would say that for now we have to wait and see how things develop in the next few days,” Professor Burton said.
Professor Golombek agreed that the new president would find it hard to implement his programme because the existence of Conicet was protected by Argentine law and his La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances) party does not have control of the country’s congress.
But the new regime would be able to strip the organisation of its budget and the fact that such ideas had gained such traction at all was a worrying development, he said.
“Part of the fault is from us scientists, because we don’t communicate as much as we should. But the campaign was also full of fake news,” Professor Golombek continued. “They took titles of papers or scientific communications, which are sometimes ironic or metaphorical – one had to do with The Lion King, for example – and they showed it to people to say, ‘This is what scientists do; we don’t want to fund this’.
“It was taken completely out of context and they didn’t go into what each paper was about. But it did work as a fear campaign against science.”