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Alberto Fernández

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Argentine scientists rally behind favorite in Sunday’s presidential election

Thousands of Argentine scientists are hoping the man expected to be the country’s next president will reverse deep cuts to research imposed by the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri. But the first priority for Alberto Fernández, the front-runner in Sunday’s election, will almost certainly be Argentina’s crumbling economy. And it’s not clear when—or how effectively—the concerns of scientists will be addressed.

Fernández, a 60-year-old lawyer and political insider, worked for former President Nestor Kirchner and, for a short time, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after she succeeded her husband in 2007. Despite a decadeslong rift between Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, she is now his running mate, and the presidential candidate is expected to continue her brand of populism, whose roots go back almost 70 years to the rule of Juan Peron. Polls show Fernández leading Macri by a wide margin; Fernández will gain the presidency if he captures more than 45% of the vote in a six-person field, or wins 40% of the vote and leads by at least 10 percentage points.

Kirchner won the support of many scientists by creating Argentina’s first Ministry of Science. She also increased the number of student scholarships and pledged to create more jobs within the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Elected in November 2015, Macri eliminated the science ministry and cut new CONICET jobs to less than one-third the level that Kirchner had targeted by this year. Other cuts have left research labs struggling to cover basic services such as routine maintenance and the cost of electricity and security.

Almost 11,000 self-identified members of the scientific community have signed their names to a pro-Fernández statement of support created by Science and Technology Argentina (CyTA), an advocacy group formed in 2016 to oppose Macri’s policies pertaining to science and research.

“Four years of cuts combined with a very, very aggressive discourse against scientific work—especially against the social sciences—would be stopped with the government change,” says Rolando González-José, a biologist at the National Patagonian Center in Puerto Madryn and a member of CyTA.

But although Fernández and Kirchner have voiced strong support for “the development of knowledge” and increased funding for research, the ticket is not without its problems. Kirchner faces corruption charges, including accusations that she solicited bribes and manipulated financial data during her time in office. And voters are split on which leader—Macri or Kirchner—deserves more blame for Argentina’s current economic crisis, which has sent the value of the peso plunging and inflation soaring.

Argentine biologist Marina Simian was so desperate under Macri’s cuts that she famously turned to a local version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire to buy reagents for her lab’s cancer research at the National University of San Martin. Still, she plans to vote for Macri because she worries that a Fernández-Kirchner victory would mean a more authoritarian and less transparent government. And although Simian has criticized Macri’s view of science, she says scientists were protesting low salaries and a dearth of grants long before Macri took office.

“We didn’t go from heaven to hell in 4 years,” she says. “We were in hell, and then we fell into a worse hell.”

Mario Pecheny, a political science researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and vice president of scientific affairs at CONICET, expects Fernández will be hard-pressed to deliver on his promises, given the country’s economic woes. But he thinks a Fernández victory will be a positive step for research.

“I’m not completely sure that the new government will do whatever we want them to,” he says. “But I think it will be much more friendly to science.”