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Scientists: a new political (f)actor in Argentina

By Sara Ardila-Gómez
on November 6, 2015

On November 22 the Argentinian people will elect their next president. The dispute is between Daniel Scioli, the candidate from the current government, and Mauricio Macri, the former major of Buenos Aires city who represents the opposition. The election has created great expectations, anxiety and even fear, not only among Argentines but also in Latin America.

Argentines are split between those who believe the country needs a “change”, those who believe that some continuity with the current government is needed and those who don’t feel represented by any of these options and distrust both of them. In Latin America, the election is seen as a battle between the regional vision of integration and rejection of imperialism and its return. If Mr. Macri wins, it will be the first time in about 15 years in the region that a left-leaning political party, when in power, will be defeated.

Things are of course more complex than this brief summary can convey. In this short viewpoint, I would like to emphasize one element of the ongoing political game that has captured my attention: the increased role, at least symbolically, of science and scientists in the discourse of both candidates.

It is undeniable that one of the main achievements (and areas of investment) of the Kirchner era concerned scientific development. Science and scientists in Argentina have by and large followed the course of the country’s history over the past decades:  Argentinian science can boast a glorious past including even some Nobel prize winners in chemistry and medicine, but during the 90s scientists were summoned by the economy ministry to “wash dishes”, when they protested about the underinvestment in research and low salaries.  In the last decade, Argentinian science not only saw its budget improve, but also its social prestige. Being a researcher is again appreciated in society– although of course it’s still not comparable with the prestige of being a soccer player.

Scientists popped up in political rhetoric during Cristina de Kirchner’s last election (2011): one of the stories on the recovery of the country pertained to a scientist who was forced to leave Argentina during the last economic crisis, but then came back thanks to the new policies. The slogan used was: “A country may suffer a brain drain, but never a heart drain”. Along with the workers, the elderly, the children and human rights organizations, scientists became social actors taken into acccount by government policies.

In the current election campaign, the two opponents have upped the ante and explicitly introduced science in their rhetoric. Mr. Scioli says that his government will follow the ‘model of science’. In a television spot he claimed: “We will act like science, which advances based on predecessors’ work”. He also emphasizes that under his government the science budget will increase by up to 1% of GDP. On the other side of the political spectrum, Mr. Macri describes science development as one of the key strategies he will use to reach one of his main (proclaimed) aims: poverty reduction. He recognizes the advances in science made by the current administration and says that the next step will be to reduce the gap between science and society, promoting the involvement of scientists in fields such as industry and public management.

In addition, scientists now seem to recognize themselves as (also) political actors. A few days ago, after the names on the ballot were decided, some scientists even turned into activists on social media. A joke that went viral on Facebook identified Mr. Macri as the representative of the (dark) road back to neoliberalism claiming that for scientists, if Mr. Macri won, their future would involve, once again, “washing dishes”. A glorious service to the country, no doubt, but still, scientists can probably contribute to the country’s progress in better ways. In another spot, the institutional logo of CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council) was changed into a pair of dishwashing gloves. On a more serious note, there was a public statement from some scientists saying that they support Mr. Scioli because he guarantees the current national scientific structure.

I don’t know who will be elected in a couple of weeks, and neither do I know the future of science, scientists or Argentinian society. Nevertheless, I celebrate the fact that both protagonists recognize, at least in their rhetoric, that science is needed for Argentina to advance. Given the improved status and the emergence of scientists as a political factor in the Argentinian society, I hope our scientists will help the society to think better and ask the questions needed, before and after the election, and make politics a bit more rational. I know that politics and political decisions are far from being rational, nor should they be, but it’s the responsibility of science to at least try to offer some more rational thinking on policy options, and perhaps even show the way to some ‘out of the box’ policy options, broadening the (policy) horizon of citizens. I really hope our scientists can help Argentinians see beyond the thick cloud of misinformation that we are experiencing in this election, coming from both sides: that might very well be the beloved strategy of politicians, but it’s not the method of science.

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