Argentinian scientists condemn budget cuts ahead of university protest

Right-wing President Javier Milei has taken an axe to funding for education and scientific bodies, sparking fears for climate research 

Argentinian Far-right president has taken an axe to funding for education and scientific bodies, sparking protests among university students

A medical student walks past a placard announcing the time left before the budget for the university runs out, at the entrance of the University of Buenos Aires Medical School, in the run-up to a national strike on April 23 against Argentina's President Javier Milei's policy of cuts in public education, in Buenos Aires, Argentina April 17, 2024 (Photo: REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian)


As a budget freeze for Argentina’s public universities amid soaring inflation leaves campuses unable to pay their electricity bills and climate science under threat, the country’s researchers and students are taking to the streets in a nationwide demonstration on Tuesday.

The dire outlook for Argentina’s renowned higher education system under President Javier Milei, a right-wing populist, was highlighted on April 22 – Earth Day – by Argentine plant ecologist Pedro Jaureguiberry, who was announced as a finalist in the prestigious Frontiers Planet Prize.

​“The current budget for universities in 2024 is insufficient, adding to the fact that in recent years we have only received 20% of the budget we asked for conducting research at our lab,” Jaureguiberry,  an assistant researcher with the Multidisciplinary Institute of Plant Biology at the National University of Córdoba (UNC), told Climate Home.

The 44-year-old scientist, who has spent his entire academic career in Argentina, was shortlisted for the award as one of 23 national champions drawn from science research teams across six continents, in recognition of a study he led on the drivers of human-caused biodiversity loss.

Dr Jaureguiberry conducting fieldwork in central western Argentina. (Photo: Diego Gurvich)

Of the finalists, three international winners will be announced in June in Switzerland, receiving prize money of $1.1 million each for their role in groundbreaking scientific research.

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With annual inflation running close to 300%, this year’s freeze on Argentina’s government budget for universities and scientific research amounts to a spending cut in real terms of around 80%, according to the University of Buenos Aires, which this month declared itself in an “economic emergency”.

On Tuesday, university teaching staff and students, backed by trade unions, will march in Buenos Aires and other cities “in defence of public education”, which they say faces a grave threat from the budget squeeze.

Met office hit by layoffs

Argentine meteorologist Carolina Vera, former vice-chair of a key working group responsible for the latest assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that in four decades of teaching and research she had never seen “such a level of dismantling through the reduction of research grants and programs with such disdain for knowledge”.

“This is very serious for atmospheric and ocean sciences, key to issues such as climate change, placing a whole new generation of meteorologists and climatologists in danger,” she told Climate Home from Trevelin, in the southern province of Chubut.

There has been widespread condemnation of 86 layoffs affecting administrative and other contractors at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), while Vera added that she is concerned about the situation at the National Meteorological Service, where 73 technicians have been let go. That, she warned, would affect the functionality of early warning and disaster prevention systems.

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Climatic and meteorological challenges are increasing in Argentina, from heavy rains due to the El Niño weather phenomenon – which has caused an ongoing dengue epidemic – to extreme heat and wildfires.

A significant drought is forecast for the southern hemisphere summer of 2024-2025, from November to February, as El Niño gives way to an expected La Niña, with the National Meteorological Service having a key role to play in predicting conditions and disseminating information about them ahead of time.

Vera added that the budget restrictions on CONICET would also limit its research capabilities, particularly relating to climate change. “​We hope that this will be reversed soon,” she added.

Greenlight for extractive industries

Milei has branded climate change a “socialist lie” since 2021 and has also questioned public education for “brainwashing people” with Marxist ideology.

Sergio Federovisky, deputy minister of environment during the previous presidency of Alberto Fernández, said Milei is not only disdainful of scientific views on global warming but also on broader environmental protection. For example, Milei – a former university professor and television pundit – said during his presidential campaign that “a company can pollute a river all it wants”.

“Climate denialism is not a scientific position, but rather an argument used to release all types of extractive actions that could be hindered by an environmental policy on the use of natural resources and the concentration of wealth,” Federovisky told Climate Home from Buenos Aires.

Meeting between Argentine President Javier Milei and Elon Musk in Texas, United States, at the Tesla factory on April 12 2024, forging a partnership through which the government is betting on attracting investment to Argentina. (Photo: Prensa Casa Rosada via / Latin America News Agency / Reuters)

In an economic review published on February 1, which unlocked $4.7 billion to support the new government’s policies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed its support for investment to increase the exploitation of oil and gas reserves and metals mining in Argentina, in order to boost exports and government revenues.

World Bank head Ajay Banga told journalists before last week’s Spring Meetings that the Argentine economy is going through a “whole economic realignment”. The bank “is supportive of the direction of that economy” and looks forward “to working closely with their leadership to help them as they go forward”, he added.

Yet he also noted that the bank’s latest review of economic prospects for the region highlighted challenges, including the impacts of Argentina’s correction, with regional GDP projected to expand by 1.6 percent in 2024, one of the lowest rates in the world and insufficient to drive prosperity.

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The IMF’s support for Milei’s neoliberal economic policies has been strongly criticised by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which said on Friday that fiscal austerity “is not the answer when people’s lives and their democratic rights are at stake”.

“The IMF is celebrating the budget surplus in Argentina, but it’s indefensible to ignore the human cost of this economic shock therapy,” the ITUC’s General Secretary Luc Triangle said in a statement.

“Pensions have been slashed, thousands of public sector workers fired, public services are on the verge of collapse, unemployment is growing and food poverty spreading.”

Last week the government attempted to head off Tuesday’s protest by announcing a last-minute budget increase for maintenance costs for universities. But that was rejected by a national council of rectors and has not deterred the movement against the austerity measures, with large numbers set to come out onto the streets as planned.

(Reporting by Julián Reingold; editing by Megan Rowling)

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