Scientists from labs across Argentina stayed home today, joining a nationwide strike against the government’s latest round of austerity measures. One of their key rallying points: a call to restore lost opportunities for young researchers who began their education during a time of high investment in science but now have little hope of continuing their careers in Argentina.
Schools, public transportation systems, and university offices shut down as their employees joined the strike, making it difficult to say exactly how many researchers were absent as part of the national movement. But research institute heads estimated thousands were on strike.
Since coming to power in 2015, President Mauricio Macri’s administration has cut short efforts by his predecessors to grow the scientific community. In the latest blow, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), headquartered in Buenos Aires, announced on 5 April that it had a mere 450 new first-time investigator positions available for this year’s roughly 2600 Ph.D. graduates and former postdocs—leaving a record number of trainees without jobs. The previous government had projected that about 1400 new jobs would now be available.
Without a position with CONICET, which employs more than 20,000 researchers in hundreds of centers throughout the country, young scientists have few opportunities. And the salaries of those lucky enough to get a job this year will be worth roughly half as much as they were in 2015, because of a failure to raise research salaries in step with rapid inflation.
CONICET institute directors themselves are fighting the cuts. On 12 April, 140 of them paid their own way to the city of Córdoba for an emergency meeting, in some cases despite phone calls from CONICET authorities discouraging participation, according to two attendees who requested anonymity. “This is a very brand-new forum,” says biological anthropologist Rolando González-José, an institute head at the National Patagonian Center (CENPAT) in Puerto Madryn. “The number of directors attending was significant evidence of the crisis we are facing right now.” (CONICET did not respond to emails from Science.)
The meeting resulted in a manifesto demanding “the immediate implementation of a plan to rescue CONICET,” including a scholarship extension for the trainees who missed out on a job and are now scrambling for other opportunities. It also called for an emergency budget increase for CONICET and reinstitution of the nation’s science ministry, which downgraded to a subsection of the Ministry of Education last year. The group has yet to receive a response from the government.
The plight of science reflects a broad economic crisis in Argentina, where massive inflation and a slipping peso have also forced other government agencies and private businesses to tighten their belts. The nation recently received a bailout package of more than $57 billion from the International Monetary Fund—the largest ever in the fund’s history—that comes with stiff requirements, including a commitment to cut the deficit to zero this year.
The impact on science has already been dramatic. Investment in R&D was just 0.26% of gross domestic product in 2018, down from 0.53% just 3 years earlier. Many CONICET institutes have cut back on such basic needs as cleaning and security services, as well as on research operations. The Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physicochemistry Research in La Plata, for instance, can no longer supply its labs with critical resources such as liquid nitrogen and oxygen tanks. At CENPAT, field research vans that encounter mechanical issues must simply be retired; there’s no money for maintenance. The peso’s drop has made imported equipment and reagents virtually unaffordable. “You think 100 times before running an experiment and you pray it won’t fail,” says Juan Pablo Jaworski, a CONICET virologist at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology.
To make matters worse, funding promised for some facilities is overdue, with no word on when or whether it will arrive. By the end of 2018, only 40% of 2017 funds had made it into the hands of institute directors. So far, this year’s funding has hovered around only half that amount.
The dismal job prospects for young researchers are bound to accelerate Argentina’s brain drain, says Alberto Kornblihtt, head of CONICET’s Institute of Physiology, Molecular Biology, and Neurosciences. Kornblihtt recently saw two junior principal investigators leave his institute to find labs abroad after struggling to make ends meet for a year and not seeing much hope for improvement. “We can’t just say you don’t have any place in this country, go abroad,” he says. “We have to stop the brain drain and keep the system alive.”
The protests will continue. CONICET directors are planning their own push for public support at a 22 May national cabildo abierto, or open council, a form of protest structured around the public debate. Yet González-José can’t help but feel pessimistic, because the scientific community has been ignored before. The resistance is getting stronger, he concedes, but “the resistance is getting stronger because the problems are getting worse.”