Death shock to a dying council

August 25, 2000

Why did Argentina's leading cardiologist commit suicide? Domenico Pacitti reports on mounting unrest in a system in dire need of reform

The suicide of Argentina's foremost cardiologist, Rene Geronimo Favaloro, has fuelled mounting unrest among the 3,765 researchers and 5,335 technical and administrative staff at the national council for scientific and technological research (Conicet) over their government's continuing refusal to discuss its plans for radical reform.

Favaloro, the heart bypass surgeon who rose to international fame in the 1960s, and founded a private university and medical company, shot himself in the heart at home in Buenos Aires just days after health minister Hector Jose Lombardo rejected his request for an advance on $11.8 million (Pounds 7.9 million) owed to him.

Such intransigence, say critics, is typical of a country whose government will rescue a soccer club from bankruptcy but will fail to raise a finger in the interests of medicine. Similar contradictions and intransigence are said to characterise the government's intended reform of Conicet.

The central measure - the proposed transfer of full responsibility for the evaluation of research from Conicet to the universities - has already met with the official approval of 25 of the country's 36 state university rectors. The rectors have also approved plans to increase the state university teaching force of 14,000 by 7 to 9 per cent and to give privileged access to Conicet applicants. Conicet researchers who already teach at universities would get a 25 per cent pay rise on condition that they carry out 10 per cent more teaching.

Other reforms include phasing out the present five-level system of researchers in favour of "assistant researcher" posts to be awarded by universities and no longer by Conicet, and channelling funds to Conicet via the national science fund (Foncyt). The government has pledged to increase Foncyt funding from $20.9 million to $60 million over the next two years. It intends to allocate most of the money to biotechnology, computer programming, climatology and energy research.

It has also pledged to create special funding for researchers below the age of 33 to help counter the long-running emigration of young talent. But Conicet's share of overall funding for science and technology has meanwhile dropped from 41.1 per cent in 1988 to just 7 per cent this year.

Conicet was founded as an autonomous body under a military government in 1958 and was, until 1971, directed by Bernardo Alberto Houssay, winner of the Nobel prize for medicine in 1947. Ironically, say researchers, a democratically elected government is singlehandedly attempting to destroy it.

Science and technology secretary Dante Caputo, whose plans have the backing of president Fernando de la RNoa and education minister Juan Jose Llach, insisted that Conicet would not be eliminated but that drastic restructuring was required to rectify inefficiency and maladministration. Just 3 per cent of Conicet funds were used to finance the 1,425 research projects, while 85 per cent went on staff salaries. There would, he said, be ample opportunity for discussion once a bill had been presented in parliament.

Protest marches and demonstrations have spread from the capital to the rest of the country, with researchers demanding the resignation of Caputo and the newly elected Conicet president, Andres Carrasco, before engaging in discussion with the government. Carrasco, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Buenos Aires, was elected last month to help carry through the reforms after his predecessor, Pablo Jacovkis, a mathematics professor, resigned on the grounds that the government's only concrete accomplishment so far had been to cut Conicet salaries by 12 per cent.

Armando Parodi, a senior Conicet chemistry researcher and member of the US national academy of sciences, said: "I think Conicet certainly needs reforming but Caputo's plan, which does not have the support of the scientific community, intends to consign management of duties to universities, which means an inevitable fall in the need for quality in scientific studies. This proposal aims purely and simply to eliminate Conicet altogether."

Argentina's research investment ($650 million) is just 0.24 per cent of the GNP compared with Brazil's 1.22 per cent and Chile's 0.64 per cent. Its 0.4 per cent share of the world production of research papers is less than half that of Brazil and just over half that of Mexico.

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