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Three months after Javier Milei took office as the new president of Argentina, scientists there say that their profession is in crisis. As Milei cuts government spending to bring down the country’s deficit and to lower inflation — now more than 250% annually — academics say that some areas of research are at risk. And they say that institutes supported by Argentina’s main science agency, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), might have to shut down. Researchers have been expressing their anger and discontent on social media and protesting in the streets.

The far-right Milei administration has decided that the federal budget will remain unchanged from that in 2023 — which means that, in real terms, funding levels are at least 50% lower this year because of increasing inflation. CONICET, which supports nearly 12,000 researchers at about 300 institutes, has had to reduce the number of graduate-student scholarships it awards from 1,300 to 600. It has also stopped hiring researchers and giving promotions, and it has laid off nearly 50 administrative staff members.

Yesterday, 68 Nobel prizewinners in chemistry, economics, medicine and physics delivered a letter to Milei expressing concerns about the devaluation of the budgets for Argentina’s national universities and for CONICET. “We watch as the Argentinian system of science and technology approaches a dangerous precipice, and despair at the consequences that this situation could have for both the Argentine people and the world,” it says.

“It is vital to increase the budget for CONICET,” says Nuria Giniger, an anthropologist at the CONICET-funded Center for Labor Studies and Research in Buenos Aires, who is also secretary of the union organizing the protests. She says that, if things don’t change in the next two months, some institutions will have to shut down. “We can’t afford basic things like paying for elevator maintenance, Internet services, vivariums [enclosures for animals and plants] and more.”

Some say that although Milei hasn’t outright shut down CONICET, as he pledged during his presidential campaign, he is keeping his promise by making it impossible for some laboratories to stay open. “By promoting budget cuts in science and technology, the government is dismantling the sector,” says Andrea Gamarnik, head of a molecular-virology lab at the Leloir Institute Foundation in Buenos Aires, which is supported by CONICET.

Daniel Salamone, the head of CONICET, who was appointed by Milei, contends that the government’s actions don’t signal a lack of support for science. “We gave raises and maintained CONICET’s entire staff of researchers and support professionals,” says Salamone, a veterinarian who specializes in cloning. He emphasizes that the country has severe economic problems. “It would seem unfair to assume a critical stance [by Milei towards science] without considering that the country is going through a deep crisis,” he adds, pointing out that more than 50% of the population is living in poverty.

Sending a message

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CONICET isn’t the only science-based agency affected by Milei’s cuts. His administration has not yet appointed a president to the National Agency for the Promotion of Research, Technological Development and Innovation, which had a budget of about US$120 million in 2023 and which helps to finance the work of local researchers by channeling international funding to them. This means that the agency has not been operating since last year, putting the 8,000 projects it runs in jeopardy .

“The government is giving a message to society that science is not important” and is sending a negative message about scientists, Gamarnik says. For instance, Milei has liked and shared posts on the social-media platform X (formerly Twitter) suggesting that researchers funded by CONICET are lazy and don’t earn their pay.

Milei has also seemed to undermine science in other ways: on taking office, he dissolved the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, which oversaw agencies including CONICET, downgrading it to a secretariat with a smaller budget and less power. The head of the secretariat he appointed is Alejandro Cosentino, an entrepreneur and former bank manager who funded a financial-technology company but has no scientific background. “With so many areas under his control, there are no priorities set, nor coordination or planning,” says Lino Barañao, a biochemist who was the minister for science for 12 years under two previous administrations. “This is serious.”

Contacted by Nature, a spokesperson for the science secretariat denies that science is not a priority for the Milei administration. “CONICET is in the same budgetary situation as the rest of the national public administration,” that is, it is under the same budget as last year, just like the rest of the government, they said. Closing CONICET institutes is not the intention, they added. And counter to Milei’s comments during the campaign about shutting down or privatizing the agency, the government wants to “build and expand scientific policy” with a special focus on bringing back Argentinian scientists from abroad, they said.

But researchers worry that, instead, young scientists will be driven away from Argentina because of the new administration’s actions. “For the younger scientists, it is a great discouragement to continue,” says Gamarnik. “Our work requires motivation and a lot of commitment. If there are no scholarships and budget, people will start looking for other options.”

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