Sitting on his bench in the Congress (Photo: Roberto Salvarezza)
Roberto Salvarezza wrote his resignation letter addressed to the Presidency of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) —the main science and technology agency in Argentina— after the result of the 2015 elections was confirmed: the coalition Cambiemos, headed by Mauricio Macri, was taking over. "I firmly believe in this project of CONICET, which not only does science of excellence, but also works articulately with all the sectors of the State to promote the country’s technological sovereignty and scientific autonomy. I consider that the new Government that will take office on December 10th does not guarantee the continuity of this model and I shall, therefore, leave my position as public official," wrote Salvarezza as a farewell.
His decision contrasted with the path chosen by Lino Barañao, head of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation —whose status was recently degraded to that of a secretariat, together with other ministries such as Health and Labor— who agreed to continue in office. Salvarezza immediately returned to his position as director of the Research Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physical Chemistry (INIFTA), where he had taken a leave of absence to assume the presidency of CONICET.
For this nanotechnology expert, the move meant returning to the scientific activity he had put on the back bench due to the demands of managing a complex institution of more than 10,000 researchers. However, that did not imply abandoning politics, but rather the opposite. After his resignation, Salvarezza joined a collective of prestigious scientists and technologists named Argentine Science and Technology (CYTA) —created to resist science underfunding— was voted in by his colleagues as a member of the CONICET board of directors, and was elected deputy for the coalition Unidad Ciudadana.
However, his destiny in politics had been set long before.
A Toy Microscope
Roberto Salvarezza was born in Lanús Oeste, in the province of Buenos Aires, on January 30, 1952. His father was an accountant who worked for an importing and trading perfume company and his mother, a teacher who never practised. He was the youngest son —he has two older sisters— of a suburban middle-class family that moved to the city of Buenos Aires when he was nine years old. "As my father changed his job, we moved to the Once neighborhood, so that he did not have to commute from Lanús to Buenos Aires by train every day. For me, it was not a positive change because I used to spend my days outside playing soccer and riding my bike, and now I lived on the 13th floor surrounded by buildings in a foreign neighborhood," he recalls.
The new environment and the urban life changed the routine of the young Salvarezza, who began to focus more on reading and on playing with a toy microscope his mother had given him, through which he discovered the small scale of some things, like leaves and ants.
As his entrance to high school approached, one of his sisters convinced their father that it might be a good idea to send Roberto to the Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, a high school that is a symbol of the intellectual elite in the city. He started in 1964 when he was 12 years old. "It was a difficult period, because 2 years later the 1966 coup d'état took place and the atmosphere became very oppressive. At the same time, there was a rising debate about politics and history, which interested me a lot," he recalls.
But that toy microscope had an impact on his taste for and ease with biology and chemistry, and it joined forces with the encouragement of a teacher who recommended that he pursue a university career related to biology research. Salvarezza stood out as a good student —despite the fact that he paradoxically failed chemistry one year— and as an athlete on the school's soccer team.
In 1970, several classmates from other shifts enrolled to start Biochemistry at the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. One of them was Eduardo Arzt, today a molecular biologist, external scientific member of the German Max Planck Society and director of the Biomedicine Research Institute of Buenos Aires. "Although we already knew each other, we became friends at university. We studied together and Roberto stood out because of his speed, he was very fast and always in a hurry,” Arzt says.
Eduardo Arzt (Credit: IBioBA/CONICET)
A few years later, Salvarezza already had a teaching position in General Inorganic Chemistry, which was, with hindsight, the beginning of his specialization in physical chemistry. His commitment to science alternated with an increasingly intense political activity within a highly politicized university. "At that time, studying and political activism in university were not mutually exclusive. In fact, for many of us they were inseparable. I approached the Juventud Peronista —the youth branch of the political party founded by Juan Domingo Perón— became a member of the Student Center and participated in many activities. After Perón died, there came a stage of persecution and violence that forced many of us to leave political activity," recalls Salvarezza.
During those years, science won over politics mainly as a matter of survival, since in 1976 the bloodiest dictatorship had taken power in Argentina. In 1977, Salvarezza, who had recently graduated as a biochemist, avoided exile unlike other colleagues. In fact, he scaled down to survive: "I had to leave the University of Buenos Aires because it had become very dangerous since they started informing against those involved in political activities in the workplace. They offered me a job as technician in a physical chemistry institute in the city of La Plata, INIFTA, and I went there," he recalls.
That safe passage would guide the course of his later career.
At INIFTA, Salvarezza started working on a project on microbiological corrosion caused by fungi in aircraft aluminum tanks, a line of research that would become his doctoral thesis in Biochemistry in 1981. That was a year after the birth of his first child, Nicolás. The project also marked the beginning of a pattern in his work: the search for practical applications of scientific knowledge and the transfer of technology to the industry.
While the return of democracy in 1983 was a relief for a badly battered country, Salvarezza's work routine was not easy in the early 1980s. He lived in an apartment in the city of Buenos Aires and had to commute for more than two hours to get to La Plata and then back. His salary was low as a researcher—he had managed to enter the career of CONICET in 1982—and it was barely enough for a family which had just welcomed newborn twins.
The search for a chance to emigrate resulted in a scholarship for post-doctoral studies in the Department of Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid, which was an opportunity to specialize in scanning tunneling microscopy. "I had to relearn everything. From biology I had moved to chemistry and, when I arrived in Madrid, I had to dialogue with physicists," he recalls.
Thus, the Salvarezza family moved to Madrid, where they lived from 1988 to 1992. "I was fine, I worked in research and began teaching, but I did not have a permanent position and I always thought about coming back, even though my wife did not agree and my children had adapted fairly well. We finally returned, but I have kept very close contact with Spanish researchers," he states.
The return came with a promotion in his career at CONICET (where he became an independent researcher) and the possibility of carrying out the first project for scanning tunneling microscopy in Argentina. "They provided me with support to buy the equipment and I put together a group of three people at INIFTA. It was a cutting-edge research line and even today it is still very important, since it allows us to see the atoms and molecules on the surface," he says. In 1996, Salvarezza obtained funding to buy a new scanning tunneling microscope and an atomic force microscope with which he created the Nanoscopy Laboratory at INIFTA. The group led by Salvarezza was a pioneer in Latin America, with more than 200 published works in the field.
At INIFTA (Credit: Roberto Salvarezza)
INIFTA (Credit: INIFTA)
By the mid-1990s, Salvarezza had moved to Ringuelet, on the outskirts of La Plata, after separating from his first wife. Cementing his new relationship, in 1999 his fourth son was born. During those years, he continued the corrosion research line in gas pipelines in the province of Neuquén and in pasteurizing equipment for the dairy industry. However, in those years these activities did not reflect in the career score of a CONICET researcher.
At that time, he was also elected president of the Argentine Physical Chemistry Research Association, and in 2000 he played an active role in the defense of CONICET against what was known as the "Caputo Plan". Driven by the Secretary of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation of that time, Dante Caputo, it was an attempt to reform the scientific institute that implied a cut in the researchers’ salaries.
That fight against a reform the scientific community managed to stop would mark the beginning of his return to politics, but this time from the side of public management.
Science & Politics
In 2003, Lino Barañao, president of the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion (created in 1996 to manage funding for science and technology programs), recommended Salvarezza for the coordination of chemistry projects evaluations. "It was a very demanding job. I suggested calling on four international reviewers and only one from Argentina, so I started getting up at 4 a.m. to be able to speak to reviewers who were in Europe. I couldn’t break that habit," says Salvarezza.
Lino Barañao (Credit: Pablo Carrera Oser/Agencia TSS)
This new role ran parallel to his scientific career, as he continued to expand his research team at INIFTA. "His working group is like a cluster of smaller groups, some of which are pioneers in nanoscience and nanotechnology in Argentina. His generosity has allowed the crystallization of teams in other parts of the country," says Félix Requejo, a physicist specializing in nanostructured materials, who met Salvarezza in 2003 and is currently in charge of INIFTA’s management.
Félix Requejo (Credit: CONICET)
"Roberto lets others grow, leaves his ego behind in discussions, and does not fear others overshadowing him; it probably has to do with him being a confident and brilliant researcher," adds Requejo. "It is a pleasure to discuss science with him and even when an experiment fails he manages to get something good out of it. Moreover, he has a compulsive attitude towards his work: he is obsessed with being productive and is extremely punctual (he always arrives 15 minutes in advance). Anxiety is his worst enemy; I am not sure if it does not make him unhappy to some extent. However, he looks younger than he is. He does not wear glasses, does sports and goes jogging. Evidently, he has been blessed with good health."
In 2005, Salvarezza was appointed member of the advisory council of the newly created Argentine Nanotechnology Foundation (FAN). Along with information and communication technologies, and biotechnology, the Government was beginning to consider nanotechnology a strategic field. "As a result of my work in public administration, and due to a growing debate about the future of science and technology in Argentina, I got involved in politics again. When you start thinking about those issues, you have to ask yourself what kind of country you want. There was always a group of people who believed that Argentina will never be competitive, that science is just a fun experiment to be carried out by the best. Some of us, however, believe that science and technology are tools to make a country competitive and less unequal. Taking part in this discussion means taking a political stance," he says.
Two years later, in 2007, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner created the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation.
President of CONICET
In 2010, Salvarezza won the role of director of INIFTA, but he would not remain in this position long: a year later, Minister Barañao asked him if he wanted to be the president of CONICET and he took office in 2012. After having been a fellow, a technician, a researcher, and the director of an institute, this was the natural final step for him to take. "Not only did he have scientific endorsement, but he also had a political vision of science on which we agreed: the idea that it contributes to the development of the country," recalls Barañao. "We also agreed on the need to make the transfer of knowledge, which was not recognized, be taken into consideration in researchers’ evaluations, in addition to their publications. In this respect, our interaction was very positive," he adds.
"At first I hesitated, but after discussing it with my wife I finally accepted. It wasn’t my scientific career that made me doubt, since I knew I could continue with both roles: I get up very early in the morning and there’s always time for science. However, I knew the job would be very demanding. CONICET is a very complex organism: when I left, there were 10,000 researchers and 200 institutes; I started with 180 executive units and when I left there where 240. It demanded a lot of effort; it was a very stressful time," says Salvarezza, who used to devote his nights to answering questions from his students. "He looked skinnier and less healthy; every Friday he visited the lab and I would tell him to take it easy," recalls Requejo about those years of fatigue and stress.
When he was president of the CONICET (Credit: CONICET)
During his presidency and as a result of the Government's investment in science and technology, CONICET expanded dramatically: the research staff grew by 10% per year and more than 40 new institutes were created. Moreover, Salvarezza attempted to change its operating logic by associating with the productive sector. CONICET launched calls addressed to specific issues and created joint ventures, such as Y-TEC, in association with the renationalized oil company YPF. However, this goal was only partially achieved.
One of the critical comments about Salvarezza's management that had wider repercussions was the complaint made by Andrés Carrasco, molecular biologist and former CONICET president. According to Carrasco, when he requested to be promoted, he was discriminated against due to his research on the harmful effects of glyphosate, a basic input of farming practice in Argentina. Salvarezza denies the accusation: "When I arrived at CONICET, he had requested a promotion and the committee had denied it. We got together several times and the rejection had nothing to do whatsoever with his research on agrochemicals, which continued during my administration."
Salvarezza wanted to create state-owned companies in areas such as production of pharmaceutical drugs and plant biotechnology. "It was then that we began to clash; Barañao promoted the idea of the public-private consortiums, but with a larger influence of the private sector. Others, among whom I include myself, believed this scheme had prevented the increase of private investment in science and that State majority was needed."
Barañao regrets the estrangement from Salvarezza, which started in 2015, before the elections, and deepened when he decided to continue in his position under the new administration. "He couldn’t stand it. He is remarkably consistent and very active politically; I am not like that. He thought that collaboration was impossible with a government like the one we now have. But when you have a precious asset to protect, you must see beyond ideological consistency; I cannot afford that luxury," says Barañao.
Two days after his resignation from the presidency of CONICET, Salvarezza returned to his position as director of INIFTA.
"It wasn’t hard for me to return to INIFTA because I had kept going regularly. I continued working with my group: if I had missed the boat, I wouldn’t have published anymore," says Salvarezza, who has more than 340 publications in international journals and holds several patents together with his group.
A few months later, he decided to run as a candidate for CONICET’s board of directors for the sector of Exact and Natural Sciences and got the majority of his colleagues’ votes. "One thing is not wanting to be a member of the executive power and a very different one is not wanting to be a representative of researchers," he says.
However, the government took more than two years to make his appointment effective, in response to which Salvarezza filed a lawsuit. "It is much appreciated for someone who had a very important political responsibility as head of CONICET to step aside, stand for elections, and win them. What they did, not naming him, is shameful," says molecular biologist Alberto Kornblihtt, a professor and researcher (CONICET-UBA) who is also a member of CYTA.
Alberto Kornblihtt (Credit: Pablo Carrera Oser/Agencia TSS)
Although justice finally ruled in his favor, the delay prevented him from joining CONICET’s board of directors, since politics had opened for him a new space for action: Congress.
In May 2017, a few days before the tickets for the midterm elections were closed, Salvarezza was working at INIFTA and received a call: former president Fernández de Kirchner wanted to see him. He took a bus to Buenos Aires and went to her apartment, where she asked him if he wanted to join her on her ticket. "I told her there were more appropriate candidates, since I do not come from politics; there were people better qualified for a legislative position. I did not want her to make a mistake by choosing me, but she insisted. I went back to La Plata, discussed it with my wife, and said Yes," he recalls.
"Although he had taken part in several political activities and was sometimes asked for information about the scientific sector, he never thought he would be appointed candidate and even less that he would be second on the list," says his son Nicolás, who currently advises him on the communication of his activities as deputy. "He’s concerned with people seeing the work he’s doing, to show those who voted him that he is working on bills and supporting claims," he says. The electoral campaign was something new for Salvarezza: "We traveled with my car or his and had very few resources. He was completely free to choose which activities he wanted to take part in and in general was very calm. The training in public speaking and dealing with the press he had gained during his presidency of CONICET was helpful."
"He is one of the authors of a paper we have submitted for publication and he remains active, although at a slower pace,” says Requejo. “If he wanted to, he could resign from Congress and return to research easily." One of the projects which Salvarezza continues to work in is related to the use of nanotechnology in the area of health and, specifically, to the use of nanoparticles for the treatment of cancerous tumors.
Arzt, his former study partner, called him to congratulate him on winning the elections: "It is good to have someone like him at Congress. His commitment to science has been transferred to politics and it is a great thing for him to make the voice of science and technology be heard." In addition to being vice president of the Science and Technology Committee, Salvarezza participates in the committees of Health, Education, Human Rights, Energy, and Maritime Interests.
"I’m not a political animal; I do not want to pursue a political career. I feel I am taking part in a political project, like I did when I was at university. I'm in Congress because they have summoned me and I feel good about it, but science is still my thing. What I’m doing now is defending science and giving it something in return," says Salvarezza.
During a speech in the Congress (Credit: Roberto Salvarezza)
"This ministry was Argentina’s commitment to the future," laments Salvarezza, microphone in hand, on September 3rd. This took place in front of the former Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, during a mobilization of scientists in protest against its degradation to a secretariat, which was decided by the current government as an attempt at saving costs. The reasons invoked in his farewell to CONICET were confirmed explicitly. Now, from his place at Congress, he seeks to make science and technology a priority again.
Bruno Massare was born in Buenos Aires, where he currently resides. He is an editor at Agencia TSS (Universidad Nacional de San Martín) and a frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique Cono Sur. He teaches at Editorial Perfil-Fundación Favoloro’s Diploma of Scientific Journalism. He graduated with a degree in Journalism from Universidad J.F. Kennedy and he’s doing PhD studies in Social and Human Sciences at Universidad Nacional de Quilmes at present. He is currently vice president of the Argentine Network of Scientific Journalism (RADPC).
Roberto Salvarezza has a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and is a senior researcher of the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). In his career he has done outstanding work in the area of nanotechnology and nanoscience. Salvarezza has been a visiting professor and researcher at several European universities and has been involved in the management of national and international projects. In the 2017 national legislative elections, Salvarezza was a national congressman candidate from the Province of Buenos Aires, for the Unidad Ciudadana Electoral Front. After being elected, in December 2017, he added another string to his academic bow by assuming the role of deputy (the lower house) in the National Congress.