Argentina faces a pressing peril to its scientific endeavors, necessitating a clear call to acknowledge the impending threat.
On October 22, Argentina will have elections to choose a new president. Scientists, myself included, are quite concerned because there is a very real chance that Javier Milei, the far-right Libertarian Party candidate, may become the next leader of our nation.
The presidents of Argentina have extensive authority. In addition to being commander in chief of the armed forces, they also serve as head of state and head of government. Milei, an economist and media darling in some circles, has expressed sympathy for Donald Trump despite supporting an extreme minimalist state and anti-science beliefs. He has consistently refuted the notion of human-caused climate change. He has declared his intention to close the Ministry of Women, Genders, and Diversity, as well as the Ministries of the Environment and Health. The National Scientific and Technical Research Council, or CONICET, is something he wants to privatize or abolish. He intends to implement a voucher system in place of the current free public primary, secondary, and university education.
With almost 30% of the vote, Milei defeated candidates for the conservative and center-left coalitions, who received 28% and 27% of the vote, respectively, in an open primary election held on August 13. Though they fluctuate virtually daily, the current polls consistently place him ahead. A run-off election will take place in November if, on October 22, no candidate receives 45% of the vote or 40% with a lead of at least 10 percentage points over the runner-up.
Milei's proposals are ill-advised and contradict Argentina's long-standing customs of appreciating science and giving priority to state-funded education. Argentina, a nation with an upper-middle-income status according to the World Bank, has a distinguished research history. Three Nobel laureates in science have come from it: biochemist César Milstein, physician and biochemist Luis Federico Leloir, and physiologist Bernardo Houssay. The first legally binding global climate change deal, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was negotiated and spearheaded by Argentinian diplomat Raúl Estrada-Oyuela.
Founded in 1958, CONICET has been recognized for the last five years as the best scientific institution in Latin America. Nearly 12,000 researchers working full-time across all scientific areas are employed by its 300 research institutes. Milei suggests privatizing it because of what he perceives to be its low output. In September, he declared, "CONICET as it exists today will no longer exist."
Knowledge created by CONICET and the national universities of Argentina has made significant advancements possible, like the creation of COVID-19 testing kits during the pandemic and wheat and soy seed resistant to drought. Milstein created monoclonal antibodies, which are widely used in medical therapy. Recently, Buenos Aires-based biotechnology company Galtec was established by CONICET researchers to manufacture monoclonal antibodies for the treatment of immunological diseases and cancer. This approach has demonstrated promising results in a phase III randomized controlled trial (N. Bannoud et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 120, e2214350120; 2023).
Milei argues that the thirty years of fundamental research that went into these medicines were a parasitic endeavor carried out at the public and state's expense. I have worked as a geologist at the University of Buenos Aires for several decades, and in the nearly sixty years since I graduated in 1965, I have never heard a politician in my nation put up such radical notions. The remarks made by Milei have become a regular topic of conversation in academic buildings' lunch rooms, classrooms, and halls, both in private and public settings. A lot of students are discussing traveling abroad.
A group of researchers are coming together to counter these risks. The presidents of the major institutions in the nation convened in August and drafted a statement upholding higher education access as an Argentinean citizen's right and a public good. In a statement, the National Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences of Argentina, of which I am president, urged society to recognize that science and education are essential to Argentina's future. In the event that Milei is chosen, a large number of professors and students are getting ready to make that point in public.
Without a doubt, Argentina is experiencing a severe economic crisis and needs to make significant adjustments. The nation is roughly US$43 billion in debt to the International Monetary Fund and has endured more than eight years of economic suffering, including annual inflation of more than 120%. The poverty rate in the population is forty percent. Nonetheless, there has long been a cultural consensus that science and education are essential to the growth and development of the country, as they underpin economic prosperity, produce both domestic and foreign patents, and establish technology-based businesses.
Research and development expenditures indicate that the nations with the highest levels of investment make the fastest progress. The United States invests 3.46% of its GDP, whereas South Korea and Israel each invest about 5%. Argentina's share is 0.5 percent. In contrast to Milei's proposals, more money needs to be spent on science and scientific education in order to improve the nation's future and the lives of its citizens. Scientists need to raise their voices and be heard, both in Argentina and abroad.