The Political Mind of a Scientist
Salvarezza in the INITFA’s Nanoscopy Laboratory. (Photo: Hernán Reig)
It is noon on Mondayat the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physical Chemistry Research (INIFTA) in La Plata, capital city of the province of Buenos Aires. Roberto Salvarezza leans back in one of the well-worn chairs at the institute’s Nanoscopy Laboratory, where he has worked as a researcher and leader in the years he was not part of the public administration, such as when he presided over the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the main Argentine research body. “These are the same chairs we had when we created the laboratory in 1993,” he says. “The chairs of Leloir[he is referring to the Argentine biochemist Luis Federico Leloir, who was awarded the Chemistry Nobel prize in 1970]were like these. He had a chair bound with wire which he wouldn’t replace, to show austerity,” he adds.
Inside the laboratory, we’re surrounded by the artifacts that, in a way,set the course of his career as researcher in the field of physical chemistry of materials and nanotechnology: the scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes. They started being installed when he came back to Argentina after having spent four years in Spain, where he had travelled to pursue his postdoctoral studies. It is the main laboratory in Argentina in that field and it provides services to other research institutions in the country.
Since he took office as deputy for the coalition Unidad Ciudadana in December 2017, Salvarezza has seldom visited INIFTA. “Although I have kept active and we have three or four papers about to be published, the number of hours I was able to devote to science was reduced. I particularly concentrated upon monitoring the topics I had already opened and on the requests for paper reviews, which are time-consuming but allow me to think of new proposals for my research group,” he says.
At the beginning of December of last year, Salvarezza was the opening speaker at the annual meeting of the Argentine Biology Society, which took place at the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IBYME), a research centre of CONICET in the city of Buenos Aires. There, he made a presentation on the implementation in nanomedicine of the molecular assemblies on which he has been working since 2010. These materials of nanometric scale (one nanometer is equal to a 10-millionth part of a centimeter) can be used in photothermal therapies in which they are brought to an excited state, triggering the release of a drug in a tumor. They can also be used in different types of sensors, including detectors of poisonous gases and even disease diagnostic techniques.
“Although I have kept active and we have three or four papers about to be published, the number of hours I was able to devote to science was reduced,” says Salvarezza. (Credit: Hernán Reig)
“We have been working in a glyphosate sensor—a broad-spectrum herbicide widely used in Argentina and qualified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘probably carcinogenic’— and the problem we have is that it is a very small molecule, making it difficult to detect. To do it, a chromatographer is required and in Argentina there is only one at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA). That is why all the samples used to carry out studies end there. We want to build a portable sensor so as to take samples and carry out the analysis in situ. The system would work with an antibody attached to a nanoparticle, but we have not yet found a good antibody to react to glyphosate. We depend on the work of immunologists,” he says.
Here is where the job of the scientist merges with that of the politician. Salvarezza was the center of a controversy during his presidency at CONICET, when researcher Andrés Carrasco accused him of preventing Carrasco from being promoted due to his research on glyphosate —which Salvarezza firmly denies, as we related in the first part of this story. Last March, he presented a bill to create an observatory of agrochemicals in Congress.
“It is a bill which I believe can have wide support in Congress, even by the ruling party, because it implies finding information and monitoring the use of agrochemicals in general, not only of glyphosate, and it would make universities and research centers able to contribute all they have been producing on this topic that causes much concern in Argentina. It has nothing to do with what happened with Carrasco, who politicized a complaint which he shouldn’t have made to me. Nobody is going to be able to find any statement on my part in support of the use of glyphosate or fumigations,” he says. This was not the case with president Mauricio Macri, who has recently spoken against a court decision made in the province of Entre Ríos establishing an exclusion zone around rural schools of 1000 meters for herbicides terrestrial spraying and 3000 meters for aerial spraying.
The INIFTA is a small gray building in the city of La Plata where about 240 people work. (Credit: Hernán Reig)
At INIFTA, a grey building from the seventies where around 240 people work, budget cuts made in the area of science and technology in Argentina have had an impact even in its cleanliness. “Today, only common areas, such as stairs, corridors, and bathrooms, are cleaned. The 5000 square meters of laboratories are currently cleaned by the researchers themselves. I wash the dishes at home and I think that’s fine, but a researcher is paid to do research,” he complains. The current budget of the institute—which depends on both the National University of La Plata and CONICET—is one third of that of 2017 in nominal terms. Last year alone, inflation in Argentina was of 47.6%, the highest figure of the last 27 years.
“There is discouragement among researchers as wages are devalued. Doctoral fellows earn wages that are close to the poverty line and, in the face of the 1800 new doctors we are going to have this year, the number of positions that are opened to become a CONICET researcher are only 450. Add to this the crisis of the science and the university sectors, which don’t have the capacity to absorb them, in addition to those who were left out of last year’s call, there is no other option but to leave the country or find a different job,” he says.
A few days later, on April 5th, the results of the last call to become CONICET researcher were made known. For the 450 positions, 2595 doctors had applied. The result means that only 17% of the graduate and postgraduate scientists—whose training was funded by the Government and, thus, represent a loss of a human resource in which it has invested for years— were given a position. This happens in the midst of an economic crisis which means the private sector is not growing enough to absorb them, something that in Argentina does not even happen in times of economic bonanza.
Roberto Salvarezza during the protests in CONICET after the last call to research career, where 2595 researchers were left out.
“This isn’t a crisis, it’s a policy. This Administration believes that the State is inefficient and needs to be smaller. As a result, investment in science and education falls. It’s not just an economic circumstance, but a planned decrease,” says Salvarezza. CONICET’s budget for 2019 is 17,000 million pesos (about 400 million US dollars), which represents a setback to levels that resemble the situation of 2011. However, there is an aggravating factor: this year 95% is allocated to salaries and scholarships, resulting in a drastic reduction of money for other expenses.
Since 2016, CONICET’s research staff has grown at an annual rate of 2.5% to 4%, regardless of the 10% forecast in the Innovative Argentina 2020 plan. “They tell us they want to be modern, but some of the countries this administration looks up to have four times the number of researchers we do. In Argentina, there are three researchers for every thousand economically active people, while Spain has six; Australia, nine; and Israel, twelve. We should be growing a lot more,” he says.
Salvarezza in front of the INIFTA, where they face serious budgetary problems like the rest of the Argentine scientific system. (Credit: Hernán Reig)
In the rest of the science and technology system, the cuts translated into restructuring processes and layoffs—as happened at the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI) and INTA— or the cancellation of programs—as was the case of the National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA) and the National Space Activities Commission (CONAE). Salary loss, as a result of the inflation rate outstripping wage increases, was another variable for budget reduction from 2016 onwards. For this year, the budget for the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Promotion (ANPCyT), the main—and virtually only—source of funding for research projects was cut by 52%.
The collapse of the science sector is also symbolic: in 2018, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation was degraded to the level of a secretariat, as was the case with the former ministries of Labor, Health, and Culture. Since then, the now secretary of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, Lino Barañao, has been reporting to the minister of Education.
“Today, our interlocutor is someone who isn’t part of our community, someone who has to deal with issues that go from schools’ infrastructure to scientists’ requests,” says Salvarezza. And he adds: “The administration had to rent an old European satellite so as not to lose the orbital position that should have been occupied by ARSAT-3, which wasn’t built due to budget cuts. We are on the verge of a brain drain while the administration favors a model based on primary commodities, agriculture, oil, and mining. Their model of a country doesn’t need scientific knowledge.”
The scientist, the politician
“It is my second year as a national deputy, so I’m still more a scientist than a politician,” Salvarezza tells a group of researchers from the Argentine Society of Clinical Investigation (SAIC) during a meeting the institution organized to hear his proposals for science and technology in view of the upcoming elections. Salvarezza is the first political party representative with whom the more than 800 members of this society are planning to meet. “It is a matter of years. I am more adapted to the scientific world. I am a scientist in politics, not a purebred politician,” as he said later on.
During his presentation, Salvarezza puts forward some of the projects on which he is working for 2020: recovering the ministerial state for the Secretariat of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation; increasing investment for science in the national budget; raising researchers’ wages; starting to increase the number of positions available for CONICET’s research career to prevent the exodus of young scientists; developing a plan to federalize the science system; and securing, by law, funding for the science sector.
Salvarezza was the opening speaker at the Annual Conference of the Argentine Society of Biology that took place in the Institute of Biology and Experimental Medicine (IBYME). He spoke about the applications in nanomedicine of the molecular assemblies on which he has been working since 2010. (Credit: Sociedad Argentina de Biología)
Several of these proposals are condensed in the bill for science and technology which the deputy is drafting. Its basic principles are that the State should resort to the science and technology system as its first strategic advisor, that funds for science should be guaranteed in the long-term, and that the work of the sector should be designed in accordance with all national development plans.
“The lack of joint planning with other ministries and the isolation of the science and technology sector was a flaw of the Administration I was part of. The country has to set its priorities, and science must contribute to their implementation, without neglecting the system as a whole, since we never know what the country will need in the future,” says Salvarezza, who is also working with opposition politicians to reach consensus on a consolidated proposal for the science and technology sector with the upcoming elections in mind.
“I will be where they ask me to be,” says Salvarezza when asked whether he sees himself as candidate for the Ministry of Science for an opposition front. “I believe I have to be useful for the political project I belong to, since I am part of a collective. If not, I will continue as a deputy [his term of office ends December 2021]. I don’t have a personal ambition. I do believe that science must be reinstated as a ministry, and the sector should be led by someone who understands it, someone with specific expertise in the science sector,” he adds.
“How has my life changed since my launch into politics?” Salvarezza repeats the question and sits back once more on the well-worn chair next to the microscopes. “I always liked new challenges. This is why I accepted CONICET’s presidency and then being appointed candidate for national deputy. I feel renewed with every project. Moreover, it’s time to leave INIFTA to the younger generations. At the same time, I feel I’m doing things I should have done in the seventies, but halted due to political persecution. It is a way to resume my commitment to society, which wasn’t a priority during the development of my scientific career. During this period, I have developed a more comprehensive approach to science, less corporatist. My vision of the country as a whole, taking into account areas such as health, education, energy, and human rights, is now stronger. I have learnt what to discuss, what the country needs. Before, I had a more reduced vision of the State; broadening it has made me a better person. I arrived in Congress with the goal of representing the science and technology area under a political project. I cannot think of one without the other. When I leave, I will be able to tell if I have succeeded.”
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.