A Scientist

in the Political Maze

Part 2

Salvarezza, hands in his pockets, in a protest for layoffs at the Ministerio de Agroindustria. (Photo: Prensa Roberto Salvarezza)

“After 12 years of continuous growth and expansion (2003-2015) the science and technology system of Argentina is collapsing due to budget cuts, personnel reductions, breach of assumed commitments in research grants and international cooperation and serious restrictions imposed by the government of President Macri,” reads the open letter from  1200 scientists worldwide, including 11 Nobel Prize winners, asking Argentina’s president and science and technology authorities “to turn around on these policies to preserve a scientific and technological system that has been a leader in Latin America and to prevent an imminent exodus of scientists.”

During his 2015 presidential campaign, President Mauricio Macri promised that, during his administration, investment in research and development would reach a 1.5% of GDP. However, by 2016, investment was reduced from 0.61% to 0.53%, according to data provided by the Network for Science and Technology Indicators (RICYT). Argentina’s crisis is not only budgetary but also symbolic: the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation was degraded to the level of a secretariat, together with other ministries, such as Labor, Health and Culture.

Roberto Salvarezza (first from the right) in a protest against the 2019 budget. Among several legislators he is accompanied by Laura Alonso (second from the left). (Credit: Prensa Roberto Salvarezza)

“The budget cuts to financing programs and to industry-assisting institutions takes us many years back,” says biochemist and nanotechnologist Roberto Salvarezza, former president of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the main science institution in the country. 

“At first, he was very anxious,” says his son Nicolás, one of his advisers at Congress. “He didn’t understand the logic behind legislative work, committees and bloc meetings. Sometimes, he wanted to come to the office, even when there were no scheduled activities. We worked on projects we knew would not prosper.”

Salvarezza says, “Yes, in the beginning I got very angry when I saw that our projects were not discussed. My outlet is political activism, talking to workers, supporting them in their claims.” 

His colleague Laura Alonso, who was also elected national deputy for the coalition Unidad Ciudadana and was undersecretary of university policies during the previous administration, explains, “He has a successful academic career, but his political activism started at a very young age as well. In my opinion, this is why the transition into legislative work was not very difficult for him. He is a highly capable and committed person. He does all within his reach and gives everything to the task he took on.”

Salvarezza interviewed at C5N channel, October 23th, 2018, about the letter to President Macri that was signed by 1200 scientists from different parts of the world: "The message from the international community is very clear, they warn that this government has no interest in science and technology," says Salvarezza.

Letter to President Macri

Salvarezza acknowledges that politics is demanding more time than he thought it would, reducing the hours devoted to scientific activities at the Research Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physical Chemistry (INIFTA), over which he presided until he accepted an appointment as candidate for national deputy in 2015. “Even though we have published some papers and I keep track of every research line, I have been to the laboratory less than I would have liked. It was an intense year in politics,” he says.

Below, four instances of how a scientist operates in the political arena.

First Act: A Day at Congress


Moved by an unknown impulse, Roberto Salvarezza rushes by without saying hello to the few who warily approach him and walks through a hall on the third floor of the annex building of National Congress. “He’s always like that. He’s in a hurry and sees nobody,” says one of his advisers.

Minutes later, he comes back and warmly greets the group of State workers who came to meet the opposition deputies in search for support to their claims about the reinstatement of laid-off employees out (in INTI alone there were 250 layoffs at the beginning of the year – INTI is the National Institute of Industrial Technology, the main support institution for industry in the country) and the rejection of the adjustment stipulated in the 2019 Budget Act. In 2018, Salvarezza submitted to Congress several projects to avoid layoffs and the funding cuts in Argentina’s science and technology system, that meant that research institutes such as the INIFTA received barely 40% of the allocated budget by December of this year. However, since the ruling party refused to discuss them, none of them were successful.

“We need numbers. We need to know how much is necessary for INTI to keep functioning normally so that we can draw up an alternative proposal and preserve jobs,” he tells Marcelo Isleño, one of INTI’s delegates.

Salvarezza with other deputies from the Judicialist Party-FpV bloc and representatives from other State institutions and companies of the country’s science and technology system. (Credit: Prensa Roberto Salvarezza)

A while later, the meeting starts. Present are deputies from the Partido Justicialista-FpV bloc (to which the Unidad Ciudadana Coalition belongs), INTI’s delegate and representatives from other State institutions and companies within the country’s science and technology system, such as Nucleoeléctrica Argentina (in charge of operating the nuclear power plants), FabricacionesMilitares, the Argentine Service for Health and Agro-food Quality and Río Santiago shipyard. Their main requests have to do with the layoffs already carried out, those that may take place if the 2019 proposed budget is approved, the incorporation of personnel in management positions with no experience in the area and the suspension of projects due to the budgetary adjustment.

Salvarezza with other deputies from the Judicialist Party-FpV bloc in an appointment with teachers, students and representatives from technical schools of the province of Buenos Aires. (Credit: Bruno Massare)

Once the meeting is over, Salvarezza takes the elevator to his office with two of his advisers and they wait for the next meeting, this time with a senior manager of a State-owned high technology company. Before it begins, the national deputy warns us about the confidentiality of this meeting: if the discussion becomes known, they risk retaliation acts against the manager by his superiors. During the meeting, the newcomer says that the Government is reducing their budget, that all projects under development have been interrupted, that there are plans to privatize the company and that the Government has asked them to find new business in order to become self-sufficient and prevent layoffs.

“Is there anything scheduled for tomorrow?” Salvarezza asks his son Nicolás once the meeting is over;  together they go over the agenda for the following weeks. Then it’s on to another bloc meeting with teachers, students and representatives from technical schools of the province of Buenos Aires, who report on a project to reform the curriculum of middle technical education which might remove some subjects and reduce the teaching load of others. Moreover, they complain about the underspending of the National Fund for Technical Education and its impact on a province that has 48% of the national enrolment and a poverty rate of 40%. “There are schools without the resources to fix broken equipment and we have classmates who come to school without having eaten,” says one of the students, who represents the student councils of the province of Buenos Aires.

Second Act: A Trip to INTA


At the wheel of his car, Roberto Salvarezza’s anxiety reflects not only in how fast he drives and how he protests against another driver who is slow to move when the traffic light turns green, but also in his impatiencein traffic-jams. He chats with me and his two advisers; he’s on the way to give a talk at the National Institute for Agricultural and Farming Technology (INTA) in Castelar, on the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires. Salvarezza was invited by ATE, a State employees union.

Flyer of the talk of Roberto Salvarezza at INTA.

It is only midday, but he looks tired. Two days ago, he had to travel by car for over eight hours (and as many hours back) to the city of Río Cuarto, Córdoba, where he had been invited by a group of teachers and researchers from the National University of Río Cuarto. He got up at four this morning (a habit of many years’ standing) and has already done two interviews today.

With nearly 440 locations all over the country, INTA is the most widely spread institution of the Argentine science and technology sector. It is characterized by combining innovative agriculture and farming research with strong links to both large and small farmers. The budget the Government had put forward for 2019 was not enough to cover the institute’s expenses, according to Héctor Espina, its national director. Moreover, INTA may be forced to close some laboratories, where 1800 researchers work. Their pressure resulted in a 400-million addition to the institute’s budget; but still, it would not meet all its needs.

Salvarezza is welcomed by more than 80 people, who listen to him closely. Most of them are researchers and fellows, some from CONICET, the institution he presided between 2012 and 2015.(Credit: Prensa Roberto Salvarezza)

After getting off the highway and driving across a long dirt road, Salvarezza stops to buy snacks and a soda for the travelling party. Once inside INTA, he is welcomed by more than 80 people, who listen to him closely. Most of them are researchers and fellows, some from CONICET, the institution he presided over between 2012 and 2015.

Salvarezza sits at a desk and doesn’t use a microphone. He speaks fast and is straightforward with his ideas. He’s here because of the bill he drafted to improve the wage and working conditions of master’s degree and doctorate fellows at INTA, who are at a disadvantage with regard to other employees in aspects such as income and labor rights.

Salvarezza sits over a desk and doesn’t use a microphone. He speaks fast and is straightforward with his ideas. (Credit: Bruno Massare)

A screen on the side show a live feed of researchers who are listening online from other locations in the institute as Salvarezza explains the project, which aims to replace the current scholarship regime with a fixed-term contract that would equate the fellows’ benefits to those of an employee. However, he warns his audience that it is unlikely such a project will be approved by the Budget Committee at Congress. “I will be national deputy for two more years and I will keep promoting this issue, but the administration has already shown that it is not interested in science and technology. We, the workers in the sector, have to devise a new model and hope for a new Government to come to power in2019,” he concludes.

Third Act: The Science and Technology Committee

It’s five o’clock in the afternoon, the time set for the monthly meeting of the Science, Technology and Productive Innovation Committee of the House of Deputies. This is the last one of 2018. The only parliamentarian present is Salvarezza, talking to his adviser Alejandro Ades in a corner about some of the topics that will be dealt with in the meeting. This is the committee in which Salvarezza feels more comfortable, given his career as a scientist and his position as deputy vice president. Notwithstanding his background, he was not given the opportunity to head the committee, as there is an unwritten rule in Congress: new parliamentarians are not allowed to chair committees.

Ten minutes later, Daniela Castro arrives. She is a deputy from his bloc and chairs this committee. Strange though the absence of other parliamentarians may seem, it is their standard practice not to make up a quorum when they are not interested in the agenda. If at least 11 deputies are not present within half an hour, the meeting will be dissolved.

Salvarezza talks with Daniela Castro, deputy from his bloc and president of the Science and Technology committee, while waiting for the arrival of the others parliamentarians. (Credit: Bruno Massare)

The situation is rare considering that the agenda includes various bills introduced by the ruling party and there are no seemingly controversial proposals; the budget reduction in science and technology has already been discussed and is not included in today’s agenda.

It’s 5:22 pm. Castro, Salvarezza and two other members of the committee—a ruling party deputy and another from the opposition—are waiting at the table. Some invited guests have also arrived to make presentations, so the meeting will not be dissolved if there is no quorum after all. It will be held, but its nature will only be informative: the bills won’t be released and put on calendar to be debated in a legislative session.

At 5:32 pm, the arrival of more deputies does not change Castro’s mood, who in her capacity as chair of the committee states, “Half an hour has passed and we will hold this meeting as informative,” but she immediately withdraws and says she had not seen that other parliamentarians had entered the room at the last minute. “I am informed we have reached the minimum number, we are 11.” This retraction generates disputes among deputies from different party blocs, who mutually accuse each other of violating the rules of procedure, as the 30 minutes had already passed, and of refusing to work and debate the bills in the committee.

At last, the controversy is settled by the committee’s secretary, who assures everyone that the quorum was properly reached. After that, at 5:40 pm, about 10 deputies of the ruling party enter the room, already knowing that the meeting will be finally held with quorum.

The agenda for the day does not seem to be the rightfit for the tension, nor the crisis faced by the Argentine science and technology sector after the budget reduction. The requests for reports of the executive branch and the resolutions to recognize leading scientific figures are followed by debates over bills to promote astronomic tourism and to declare the province of Misiones “Province of Maker Culture” (the idea that everyone is able to build or solve a problem with technology, according to the bill) that was questioned because legislative texts cannot be written with words in another language, among other reasons. The deputy who presented it could not explain why it could not be written in Spanish.

At 5:40 pm, about 10 deputies of the ruling party entered the room already knowing that the meeting will be finally held with quorum. (Credit: Bruno Massare)

“Nothing significant is achieved in a Congress where any proposal submitted is going to be blocked, as has happened with numerous bills aimed at preventing budget reductions or layoffs, or ensuring funds for science. The activity in the committees is dramatically reduced to simply discussing draft declarations of endorsement and requests of reports,” says Salvarezza, resigned.

Fourth Act: Political Tribune


The Instituto Patria—a kind of think tank of Kirchnerism created after the party left office towards the end of 2015— issued a public notice on the suppression of ministries undertaken by coalition Cambiemos during 2018, giving the reason of reducing public expenditure. Therefore, former ministers Carlos Tomada (Labor), Daniel Gollan (Health) and Teresa Parodi (Culture), along with Roberto Salvarezza (Science, Technology and Productive Innovation), were summoned as speakers.

Salvarezza’s case was special as he had not been minister, but only the head of CONICET. “I am a sort of undercover agent because I was not the minister, but he cannot be present,” he jokes about the now degraded secretary of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, LinoBarañao, who was the minister during the Kirchnerist administration and today works for Cambiemos.

Salvarezza at Instituto Patria. He’s introduced as an example of political commitment for having resigned to his public office after the results of the elections were known. (Credit: Instituto Patria)

Before a full house, Salvarezza will, as the first speaker, act as a militant. He is introduced as an example of political commitment for having resigned to his public office after the results of the elections were known. He gives a 10-minute speech, shorter than those that will follow it. At times, he speeds up and, regardless of the context, makes reference more to data than emotions.

His presentation begins with an overview of the creation of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation in 2007 on President Cristina Fernández’s initiative. “A process to revive science and technology was undertaken as part of an inclusive political project for the nation, which depends largely on knowledge in order to grow. This culminated in the creation of the ministry. Its effacement, during the current administration, marks the end of a different process: the destruction of the science and technology system,” he states.

As former head of CONICET, Salvarezza decides to review the growth achieved by that institution during the Kirchnerist period (2003-2015). “In the beginning, there were approximately 3500 researchers and the staff demographic was older. At the end of 2015, we had 10,000 researchers and a much younger staff on average. In 2003, there were 1800 fellows and we ended with 11,000. We began with around 100 institutes and ended with over 250,” he recalls.

“The administration admitted the science and technology system had been a feat of the previous Government and that is why they offered Barañao the option to continue in his position. They recognized that we had been successful.” In addition, he added, “Later on, we realized that this appreciation had been a sleight of hand, part of the cynicism that characterizes this administration.”

Salvarezza gave the example of the cuts in investment in science and technology that followed, which were included in the national budget. “When we left, the investment in science and technology represented 1.53% of the national budget. The following year, it was reduced to 1.4%, this year it is 1.22% and the next it will be around 1.1,” he warned. “Both science and technology have come to play a secondary role in public policies.They no longer constitute an input for development because we currently follow a national model centered on the primary economy and the financial sector,” he said.

Epilogue: Cancelled Act


On Tuesday 20 November, Salvarezza had been invited to give a talk at the Management Office of Research and Application of the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA). His presentation, called “Dismantling the scientific and technological system: Challenges posed in the return to a path towards growth and expansion,” was cancelled not long before the appointed time by the authorities, who also cancelled another activity in the Atomic Center of Bariloche scheduled for the same week.

“The authorities think that a deputy from the opposition should not give that kind of talk in the headquarters of the CNEA, but I believe they should also see me as the vice president of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Deputies,” says Salvarezza.

Salvarezza in an open forum in the square in front of the National Congress in which he spoke about the consequences of the 2019 Budget. (Credit: Prensa Roberto Salvarezza)

The topics Salvarezza could not deal with include the impact of 2019 budget, which was finally approved in Congress and which implies a cut in investment in the science and technology system. Even if the budget increases from ARS39,000 million to ARS 47,000 million for next year, it has in fact been reduced by approximately USD 800 million, as the result of inflation and the national currency devaluation.

"This budget implies less health, less work, less science. All this means more poverty,” Salvarezza said in his speech during the 2019 Budget discussion at the Congress. (Credit: Cámara de Diputados de la Nación Argentina)

A year after having taken office as deputy, Salvarezza considers that in Congress “the balance is negative, as the ruling party has rejected all the initiatives we have introduced to maintain the science and technological system running.”

“Do you find this discouraging?” I ask.

“I always compare situations to what we lived through during the military dictatorship and that means nothing is discouraging. This is a battle we are fighting to create the necessary conditions to enable us to win next year’s elections and retrieve investment in science and technology.”, he says.

In addition, from a political point of view, he states: “My assessment is optimistic as we were able to give a voice and a sounding box to the conflicts and the requests of those who have suffered worst under budgetary reduction.” He predicts he’ll be working on two bills for 2019: the creation of an investigation office into the impact of agrochemicals and their use, and new legislation on science, technology and innovation that would improve the current law (enacted in 2001) and ensure funds for this sector.

Bruno Massare

The journalist


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

The scientist

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.