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OP-ED | 06-07-2019 08:09

Sub-par funding for science cause for debate

Rather than enter into this week’s round of the electoral hurly-burly, this editorial would like to step back and take a look at an area absolutely central to the world of the 21st century: science and technology.

Now that the battle lines have been finally drawn for the upcoming PASO primaries with the definition of the electoral lists and candidates, there are plenty of political fireworks but precious little serious debate – not even about the most immediate urgencies (never mind the longer-term planning) with the PASO campaign seemingly unable to lift itself above the level of a beauty contest. Rather than enter into this week’s round of the electoral hurly-burly, this editorial would like to step back and take a look at an area absolutely central to the world of the 21st century: science and technology.

Nobody questions the importance of research and development. But nobody seems to give it much priority either. Even those who can see absolutely no redeeming feature in the two terms of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency would feel inclined to admit that the best thing she ever did was right at the start – the creation of a Science and Technology Ministry as part of her first Cabinet in late 2007. President Mauricio Macri implicitly recognised as much when the continuation of Lino Barañao at the helm of the Ministry was the one element of smooth succession in a singularly disjointed transition (even if demoted to secretarial rank nine months ago). Yet this demotion is the least of Argentine science’s problems. It came in the immediate aftermath of a mega-loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as one of a series of cuts which hit Argentine scientific funding as a whole – research and development spending has been halved from its 2015 levels of over 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (and over 1.5 percent of the budget) with the intake of scientists by the CONICET national research council also halved and projects all but frozen. A sorry contrast to Macri’s 2015 campaign promise to double the investment in science and technology.

While Macri’s bid to steer this country into living within its means is laudable, we would argue that this at least is the wrong area for savings. For more than half a century since the “night of the long sticks” in 1966 (the violent eviction of five University of Buenos Aires faculties under a military junta) Argentina’s once prestigious science, with its string of Nobel Prizes, has suffered a constant brain drain, interrupted only by a couple of false dawns such as the return of democracy in 1983 and the creation of Barañao’s ministry. The meagre salaries are a measure of the low public esteem for scientific excellence, serving as a powerful disincentive, even if the sector is tiny while its findings are of inestimable value – as Albert Einstein predicted: “The empires of the future will be built on knowledge.”

Some of Macri’s educational planners attempt to justify the cuts by arguing that both the focus and the funding of Argentine science are wrong. Whereas in developed countries at least a half and up to three-quarters of the investment in research and development comes from the private industrial sector, in Argentina three-quarters of the funding comes from the state (Argentine industry places more trust in protectionism than looking to become competitive via technological innovation) – because of this source of funding, too much of Argentine science is abstract and not applied, critics argue.

Yet today’s global information technology argues against that line of thinking. There is something of a myth that this is entirely a private-sector creation – that today’s computer giants are the results of Bill Gates or Apple’s two Steves playing around with electronic gadgets in a garage and becoming billionaires. Yet the real cradle was the United States space programme around the time of the “night of the long sticks,” which would not resist much cost-benefit analysis for its stated purposes but which was absolutely foundational for today’s computer technology. This example of public spending on an obscene scale simultaneously gives the lie to the best research as coming from the private sector and as being applied since its main achievements were a by-product – so many of our benefits ranging from champagne to penicillin are the result of unintended blunders.

Why is there not more campaign debate over these issues?

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