Argentina’s new president has nation’s scientists very, very concerned

The election of libertarian Javier Milei as Argentina’s next president has many of the nation’s scientists fearing for the future. Milei has vowed to slash government spending, close or dramatically restructure Argentina’s main science funding agency, and consider eliminating ministries dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Milei has also called climate change a “socialist hoax.”

“We will be a country without science,” fears Alejandra Capozzo, an immunologist with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and head of the Applied Veterinary Immunology Laboratory of the National Technological Institute (INTA). "Today is a day of mourning for Argentine nationals working within the national scientific-technological system.”

Milei, a bombastic right-wing politician many observers have compared to former Presidents Donald Trump of the United States and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, defeated Sergio Massa, Argentina’s economy minister, by a 55.7% to 44.3% vote in Sunday’s election. Milei will be sworn into office on 10 December.

Voters backed a radical change in Argentina’s leadership after a decade of stagnant economic growth that has left the country deeply in debt to international lenders, with a 40% poverty rate, and inflation that has soared to nearly 150% this year. The election presented voters with “two bad options,” says neuroscientist Joaquín Navajas, director of the neuroscience laboratory at the Torcuato di Tella University. “The economy minister of the crisis we are going through or, incredibly, an even worse option … [a] right-wing populist who brings with him all the worst of Argentine politics.”

In particular, researchers are worried about Milei’s plans for CONICET, Argentina’s lead science agency, which has a $400 million annual budget and employs more than 11,800 researchers. CONICET is considered one of the top science organizations in Latin America. Over the past 5 years, for example, it has won the top spot in a regional ranking of governmental scientific organizations compiled by SCImago Institutions Rankings.

During his campaign, however, Milei asserted that CONICET was “unproductive” and suggested he would eliminate or shrink it in order to “clean up what was dirty by those scientists who write stupid things.” CONICET “as it exists today will no longer exist,” he promised. Milei also referred to researchers as "gnocchi"—a derogatory term used for public employees accused of collecting their salaries without working—and suggested they should "earn their bread through the sweat of their brow."

Given that Argentina’s scientific community has already been battered by a decade of economic turmoil, a move to reduce government support for science would likely “destroy” CONICET, Capozzo says. Salaries for Argentine scientists are already among the lowest in the region, she notes, and further cuts would likely force many researchers—including herself—to consider “pursuing a different path” and even leaving the country. Navajas, for one, believes that Milei’s policies, if fully implemented, could trigger a brain drain even more severe than what Argentina experienced during the political and economic turmoil of the 1990s.

It’s not clear, however, whether Milei will be able to fully realize his agenda. For example, although he won the presidency, his party, La Libertad Avanza, enjoys relatively little support in Argentina’s legislature, suggesting some fierce policy battles lie ahead.

Researchers say they are preparing. "The upcoming period will demand a defense of the significance of public funding for science," says virologist Humberto Debat of the Institute of Plant Pathology at INTA. "We must now protect what we have because [Milei] pledged to act against it," says biomedical researcher Nadia Chiaramoni of the National University of Quilmes. They are not ruling out organizing protest mobilizations.

Whatever the outcome of those battles, researchers say Melei’s fiery antiscience rhetoric has already done damage. Chiaramoni and other researchers, for example, say it has motivated hate messages they have received on social media. Melei “doesn't critique the caliber of science,” Navajas says. “Rather, he … sows doubt among the populace about what they fund through their taxes amidst an economic crisis."

“Regardless of whether CONICET is defunded or closed,” Capozzo says, Melei’s attacks have “taken the people's trust away from us. That is irrecoverable.”