Decades of underfunding has decimated the scientific community of Argentina, sending top-level scientists to neighbouring Chile and beyond to continue their vital research.
For more than a hundred years, Argentina’s education system, from kindergarten to postgraduate level, has been free of charge.
The policy has continued uninterrupted no matter who was in power, however what has changed is the country’s ability to keep a hold of the fruits of its education system.
From the mid 1970s until the early 2000s, the country’s scientific community has been in a constant state of decay.
For almost three continuous decades, military dictatorships chased scientists away for reasons of ideology, while democratic administrations effectively forced them to leave by not providing adequate funding.
With no alternatives inside the country, many scientists were forced to go to institutions abroad.
There were attempts to redress the issue under former president Nestor Kirchner and his wife, former president Cristina Fernandez Kirchner.
The pair oversaw funding increases for scientific projects and introduced programmes that attempted to repatriate Argentinian scientists working abroad by offering them similar contracts to the ones they had in North American and European states.
They also initiated a scheme that expanded on a year-on-year basis so the state could directly hire scientists via the National Council of Scientific and Technical Investigation (CONICET), one of Argentina’s most respected scientific institutes on the global stage.
When President Mauricio Macri was asked while campaigning in 2015 what Kirchner policy he would keep if elected, his answer was her science and technology policy.
He went as far as to promise that his administration would double the country’s spending on the sector from 0.66 percent in 2015 to 1.5 percent by the time his mandate ended in 2019.
There was reason to be optimistic at first, when Macri decided to keep Kirchner’s Minister for Science and Technology Lino Baranao. The decision gave hope to the scientific community that there would be a continuity of policies.
But the continuity was only in the name of the minister.
Investment in science and technology stands at 0.23 percent of GDP and is expected to be even lower by the end of 2019. The figure is the lowest since 1991.
The drop in funding relative to GDP means that more than 140 of the 290 institutes under the control of CONICET are underfunded. Some even struggle to pay bills and maintain buildings, let alone fund new research; the purpose of their existence.
Lack of money also means that there are close to 2,000 qualified, top-level scientists left out of the CONICET system each year.
The situation means scientists and researchers are left with the choice of leaving the country to stay in their respective fields or abandoning them entirely for a different career, which in the best case usually means a teaching position or something similar.
Becoming a researcher at CONICET involves applying for a limited number of scholarships. Winners are determined by a number of factors, including the number of published articles that a scientist has and the area of specialisation. The process is considered to be one of the most meritocratic in Argentina.
The Chilean option
Federico Hernandez, a 31-year-old chemist specialising in quantum mechanics told TRT World in a phone conversation that he was a “product of the country’s education system”.
Until March, Hernandez was a recipient of a postdoctoral scholarship from CONICET, and also had a teaching position at the National University of Córdoba.
Last year he went to neighbouring Chile for an exchange with the University of Santiago but by the time it was over, he had no certainty over whether he would be able to continue his work, as his scholarship ended and the Argentinean authorities have delayed the issuance of new ones.
“What happened to me and many others is that our scholarships have ended and we don’t know if we will continue in the system or not,” he said.
Hernandez’s Chilean hosts offered to ensure his role in a research project that received $10m from the Chilean state, but that meant leaving Argentina in the long run.
“Even if I was granted a position in Argentina, with the current conditions, if my computer broke for example, I wouldn’t have the budget to buy a new one, and would have to save for several months to buy a new one on a researcher’s salary,” he said, adding: “Without a budget it’s really hard to do good quality scientific research.
His case is not unique.
Franco Bonafe is a 28-year-old postdoctoral scientist, also trained at the University of Cordoba, with a background in quantum dynamics and nanosystems.
He has had research stints in Austin, Texas, and was later invited to the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany where he was awarded a postdoctoral scholarship.
Speaking to TRT World over the phone from Hamburg, he said: “To be clear the brain drain has been going on for a long time, at least that’s the case in my field of work.”
Bonafe said that developing countries still lagged behind developed countries when it came to advances in science, which he put down to the resources available.
“Competition for a researcher position at CONICET is harder now than ever because they’re hiring half the positions that they were hiring four years ago,” he said.
“Scientists with more than 20 publications, who for whatever reason want to return to the country are also competing, and when there are so few positions available it makes it almost impossible to compete.”
The only way to compete was to work abroad to build up credentials, Bonafe added.
There’s no way of tracking how many scientists have left the country so far but it is certain that more are pulling out of the CONICET system than are entering it.
As part of the Macri government’s agreement with the IMF over a bailout package, the budgetary axe has been wielded across a number of departments, not least the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Baranao is still in charge but now with the less senior portfolio of secretary instead of minister. The ministry itself no longer exists, and is instead a secretariat.
Another element affecting funding is the devaluation of Argentina’s currency, the peso, by 100 percent.
These factors mean science and technology are hit twice over.
Mateo Martini, a 34-year-old geologist, has a teaching position at the University of Cordoba and was a postdoctoral scholar at the CISTERRA Institute, which relied on both CONICET and the National University of Cordoba for funding.
The researcher’s speciality involves studying glaciers and their evolution, a role which has seen him collaborate with scientists at the University of Columbia in the US, as well as the Catholic University of Santiago in Chile.
“The current situation is a disaster,” he said.
“Right here in the Institute our financing has been cut down so hard that if we change the tires on a truck the Institute has, there goes our year budget,” Martini added, explaining further that the in neighbouring Chile, researchers had 30 times the budget his department received.
Martini applied for two cycles of openings at CONICET but did not succeed in getting a place due to the cuts. He applied again this year and was one of the 450 scientists selected, but the news came too late. He had by then accepted an offer as a postdoctoral scholar in Chile where he will make double the salary he would have made in Argentina if he had stayed as a researcher.
As if to emphasise the severity of the crisis, a recent episode of TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire features a CONICET researcher, Marina Simian, who ended up winning 500,000 pesos ($11,100); the equivalent of a year’s salary.
When asked what she would do with the money, she responded in tears by saying she would use it to fund her research focusing on breast cancer, a project that had not received funds in over a year.
It seems that for scientists in Argentina, the only solutions appear to be either a life abroad or to try their luck on a TV show.