The Science Funding Crisis... in Argentina

With scientists in the United States reeling from a devastating slate of proposed draconian cuts to their endeavors, they can look to their colleagues in Argentina for moral support and an introduction to a field most would rather avoid; political science.  In each case, the stakes are as high as they get.

Of all the developing nations in South America, Argentina has the strongest commitment to science and technology, maintaining it through the disruptive cycles of political and economic turmoil that plagued the country for the last century.  As a result, Argentina boasts three Nobel laureates in the sciences and an expanding nuclear power industry. It is the country that many Central and South Americans come to for advanced education, medical treatment, and a higher standard of living.

All of that could be about to change under a newly elected administration.  Despite campaign promises to double spending on science and technology, President Mauricio Macri did just the opposite last year, cutting science spending for research projects and the hiring of new researchers by 36% when adjusted for inflation.

Argentina's decade long push to grow science came to a screeching halt.

In 2013, the nation was solidly on track, embarking on a bold plan called Innovative Argentina 2020.  The seven year plan had three goals for science: triple the investment in research, double the number of researchers, and encourage scientists working abroad to come home, reversing a brain drain.

Before this ambitious campaign began Argentina had about 1 researcher per 1,000 people. The goal; get to 8 per 1,000, on par with the developed world.  Setting the bar that high meant they would have to increase the number of government funded permanent researchers by 10% every year.  Remarkably, they've done just that and as of this year Argentina has about 4 researchers per 1,000. They are halfway there, but now the momentum has abruptly stopped.

I sat down with a senior researcher to talk about the funding crisis. Biochemist Ana Franchi, is Director of the Center for Pharmacological and Botanical Studies. She studies the biology of reproduction, beginning her career in 1980 with a grant from the government's primary science and engineering funder, CONICET.

Ana Franchi, Director of the Center for Pharmacological and Botanical Studies in Argentina. Photo by author.

Ana Franchi, Director of the Center for Pharmacological and Botanical Studies in Argentina. Photo by author.

Franchi was a part of the December protests and occupation of the Science Ministry.  When Lino Barañao, the Science Minister, finally agreed to sit down and negotiate, she was one of about a dozen representatives of science, engineering and technology who was at the table.  

"Barañao told us that we can't afford scientists in a poor country," Franchi said.  "We asked him, ‘Well what about the Argentina 2020 initiative?’ After all, he helped make the plan.  There was no answer."  It seemed pretty clear that the program and its initiatives were finished.

This is a theme we've heard echoed in the United States and certainly by those who champion proposed science cuts: We can't afford science.  In the past two decades, science has increasingly been seen as frivolous, elite and untrustworthy in the face of economic struggle, rising unemployment and the politicization of climate change.

The fact is, government-funded science has largely been the engine of prosperity essential to our economy, health and national security since World War II. Barañao’s insistence that science is unaffordable in the face of poverty made Franchi think of the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister: "Nehru said it is because we are poor that we must invest in science."

Nehru is widely seen as the architect of the modern Indian state.  In 1937 he said, "It was science alone that could solve these problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people."  

The wisdom of Nehru's vision for science and its role in India's prosperity is seen today. India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a leader in science and has seen its poverty level drop from 65% in the 1950s to 12% in 2015.  

There have certainly been problems with how Argentina has implemented the 2020 plan and spent its science money, it’s hard not to see these big cuts as a turn away from government-funded science rather than an attempt at reform.

Franchi sees larger economic implications.  "We cannot return to being a country that just exports primary products like soy, milk and meat and stop being an industrial country.  A return to that economy will only support 10 million people, not the 40 million people that live in Argentina today." Franchi added.

So what exactly has science done for Argentina in the last 12 years?  They've developed their own radar systems, their own medicines, as well as their own vaccines for people and animals.

"And in the last 2 or 3 years Argentina made their own communication satellites through a company called ARSAT," Franchi said.  "Only about 12 countries have done that."

All of these advances give Argentinians greater independence by boosting their economy and their national security.  Their experiment was a resounding success and yet, in the face of such encouraging results, it appears to be coming to an end.

As the U.S. now ponders its own potential downsize in science, it's important to remember what we'd be giving up.  Independence, economic gains, national security, the prosperity that the entire U.S. has enjoyed since World War II--these will all suffer if we too turn our backs on science.

In upcoming blog posts, I will continue to look for the lessons we can learn from Argentina's science funding crisis, focusing on scientists as political activists, the trouble with trying to back only science that is profitable, and the damaging implications of brain drain.

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Banner photo by Vale Dranovsky.