by Melanie Basnak
figures by Jovana Andrejevic
Doctor Marina Simian won a big money prize playing “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” last month in Argentina. She’s not using that money to buy a house or go on a fancy vacation. Instead, she’s using it to fund her cancer research at the University of San Martin (Figure 1).
“Why does she have to go to a TV show to get funding for her lab?” one might ask. “Is she not doing a good job?” Yes, she is – she’s maintaining an active cancer biology lab and publishes frequently. “Has she applied for grants?” Yes, she has done so successfully. However, the funds granted through formal applications are modest. More importantly, they haven’t yet been paid in full. She was awarded the money in 2017, but only half of that got to her last year, a year later than expected.
Dr. Simian may be the only scientist to have won half a million pesos (approximately 12,000 USD) on a TV show, but she’s definitely not the only scientist to have not received promised research funds. This is a sad reality in Argentina, where the unpredictability of funding endangers the future of science.
I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina until I was 25 years old. I majored in Biology at the University of Buenos Aires, a public, free, and prestigious institution that allowed me to acquire valuable knowledge. More importantly, it gave me the tools to think critically as a scientist.
I spent 3 years in a research lab studying the visual system in crabs. Argentina has never had funding for science that’s comparable to that in first-world countries, but until a couple years ago, people could still do research with what they got. Money shortages made us more resourceful: we fetched the animals ourselves at nearby beaches, we built our own devices instead of buying them, and we applied for as many grants as possible to fund internships and travel to conferences in different countries.
I came to Harvard in August 2017 to start my Ph.D. in Neuroscience. It was an eye-opening world of difference from the get-go. I think most people here don’t fully grasp how lucky we are. Just being able to buy the most basic lab supplies (like sharpies) without worrying if we’ll have enough money is amazing.
People here are smart and work long, hard hours. Their work is often featured in top journals and looked upon as examples of good science across the world. Scientists in poorer countries don’t usually publish in such journals, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not smart or don’t work hard enough. The uncertainty of funding and other challenges they face impact their scientific process and are usually overlooked by the global community. For example, these countries don’t produce any of the reagents and equipment that they need for their labs. This makes acquiring them more costly, and it makes their delivery take much longer since clearing customs can be a slow process. And even if the lab is lucky enough to have the funds to buy the supplies and get them within a reasonable time, it still needs to figure out funding for publishing their work in a top journal.
Gloomy prospects for Argentinian science
Scientists in academia around the world are aware of the instability and poor wages that come with the job until a tenured position is secured. In a country like Argentina, this is even more pronounced due to several factors. The salaries of scientists are extremely low (Figure 2). This has always been the case when compared to other jobs, and the gap has only widened in the past few years.
Likewise, the number of positions awarded at each step of the academic ladder has decreased, meeting an all-time low last year. There has been a 29% reduction in doctoral grants awarded in previous years, as well as a 15% reduction in postdoctoral grants awarded. But way worse than this has been the cut in the number of junior researchers incorporated into the system, which has been reduced to less than half of what it was in 2017, and only a fourth of what it was in 2015. This has left scientists with 12 years of training outside of the academic system having to look for jobs in totally different settings or leave the country in search of better prospects.
Furthermore, previously existing postdoctoral fellowships have been eliminated, such that the only available fellowship now lasts 2 years, after which postdocs are expected to apply for assistant investigator positions. Those who don’t make it are left out of the system and faced with the sad reality of the lack of scientific jobs outside of academia in Argentina.
The lucky ones who make it to more stable positions such as junior PIs (principal investigators) face other problems. Drs. Jimena Berni and Emiliano Merlo are Argentinian neuroscientists who did their postdoctoral studies and started their own labs at the University of Cambridge. By the end of 2014, they applied to start their own laboratories in Argentina. Despite being successful with their applications, they spent 2 years without any laboratory space, preventing them from starting their research. They ended up moving back to Europe, where they are currently based.
Those who are lucky enough to become PIs and have a lab where they can work face yet another problem: there are almost no funds to do science with, so they might not be able to buy the most basic reagents. Subsidies are scarce, and if you’re awarded some money, the funds will probably get to you several years later at a fraction of their original value.
Why should you care and what can you do about it?
Scientific research is responsible for the polio vaccine, the invention of the internet, figuring out strategies to prevent climate change, and many other significant improvements in human life. Different countries weigh the importance of science differently, and therefore differentially fund the scientific enterprise in relation to other public needs (Figure 3). If you’re lucky enough to be in one of those countries where science is very well funded, be glad and thankful, but don’t take it for granted. When elections come, be aware of where candidates stand with respect to science and vote for someone who supports it. Raise your voice to ensure that everyone is aware of the importance of science.
The lack of scientific funding in other countries is not going to be fully solved overnight, and the problem will require much political willpower for change. However, small contributions from other players in your home country can still be impactful. For example, a researcher could offer a postdoctoral position to a talented foreign graduate student who would otherwise quit science due to lack of funding in his or her home country. You can help the cause by sharing notes such as this one, or others that I’m linking below with your network. By doing so, you could be the link between those who need help and those who can provide it.
Melanie Basnak is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard University. She studies the neural bases of behavior using Drosophila melanogaster.
Jovana Andrejevic is a third-year Applied Physics Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.
For more information:
Letters and news articles about Argentina’s scientific crisis have been published in Science and Nature in the past couple years, and can be found here: