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The employment crisis of young PhDs in Argentina. Is neoliberalism to blame?

Federico Vasen

22 May, 2017

The protest began after the National Research Council announced without notice a cut of more than 55% to new vacancies available to enter the agency's research career, which offers permanent positions for academic research. The occupation lasted for several days until an agreement was reached. The authorities offered postdoctoral fellowships until the end of 2017 to 508 researchers whose applications had been approved by the evaluation committees and were affected by the cut. The authorities also committed to start negotiations with other institutions to find them a permanent position for 2018.

This crisis arises after the change of government in Argentina in December 2015. Cristina Kirchner, a leftist-populist was replaced by a right wing team linked to the economic elite. During the campaign the new president had promised to continue the previous government's STI policy and maintained the area's minister. But the emphasis on cutting the fiscal deficit and implementing orthodox measures to lower inflation rates generated massive cuts that affected the science system.

 

Assembly during the occupation of the MINCyT. Source: https://www.mas.org.ar/?p=11144

Thirteen years before, in 2003, the Argentinian government started an ambitious reform to the existing science policy framework , including an important increase in the budget.  Academic science was promoted through an aggressive program of doctoral training and new positions for early career researchers. The number of doctors graduating from universities also increased from nearly 700 in 2006 to 2.200 in 2014 [1].

The blind spot of this policy was that it did not seriously consider that it was not feasible to create permanent positions in the Research Council for all graduating doctors. It was not expectable that universities or other public or private institutions would have the capacity to absorb them. Although the policy discourse promoted their insertion in private companies or their transformation into entrepreneurs, the doctoral training received in no way had prepared them for these tasks.

Argentina’s crisis can also serve to discuss more broadly the rationale for the emphasis on doctoral training in Latin American countries. The classical discourse associated to the linear model of innovation holds that a qualified scientific base that produces basic science is necessary for technological development and innovation. Since this investment is too risky for private companies, it must be supported by the State. Today doctoral training is considered as a prerequisite to be able to perform these tasks adequately.

However, since the 1960s, Latin American thinkers have argued that adherence to the linear model might not produce the expected results. They argued that the most prestigious subjects in academic science were implicitly linked to the interests of the governments and economic groups of the central countries. The uncritical support of basic science could then strengthen dependency. In this sense, they proposed to promote research relevant to local problems. It was hoped that this could contribute more in the medium term to socioeconomic development rather than classical academic science [2, 3, 4].

Nowadays at the global level, the idea of a crisis of “overproduction” of PhDs has been discussed. It is argued that they are forming many more doctors than the research system can absorb [5]. The direct link between PhD production and economic competitiveness is regarded to be complex and non-linear [6].  The region in the world that is still demanding doctors internationally is Asia, but it is requiring expertise in very specific areas [7].

Strong investments in science policy in Latin America have been justified in terms of their ability to generate jobs, improve economic competitiveness and quality of life. The way in which the production of doctors in all areas of knowledge without prioritization of strategic sectors would contribute to this task was never clearly articulated.

Perhaps it would be easier to claim that the problem in a country like Argentina is simply that a neoliberal government arrived and this CEO-minded people do not understand the value of science.

I believe, however, that the real challenge is to reflect about the kind of human resources Latin America needs to contribute to its own development. The regional knowledge production matrix concentrated on basic science has to be discussed. This does not mean that all knowledge needs to be marketable or commodified, since the privatization of knowledge does not necessarily lead to collective benefits. But a view from the ivory tower that disregards the economic value of knowledge is equally harmful. Only through the application of knowledge can science fulfill its promises of contributing to socioeconomic development.

 

[1] https://storify.com/jaliaga/conicet-analisis-presupuestario

[2] Varsavsky, O. 1967. Scientific Colonialism in the Hard Sciences. American Behavioral Scientist. 10 (10),  22-23.

[3] Herrera, A.O. 1971. Ciencia y política en América Latina. México, Siglo XXI.

[4] Vasen, F. 2016. What does a ‘national science’ mean? Science policy, politics and philosophy in Latin America. In: Aronova, E., Turchetti, S., eds. Science Studies during the Cold War and Beyond. Paradigms Defected. New York: Palgrave.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/23/so-many-phd-students-so-few-jobs

[6] Gokhberg, Leonid; Shmatko, Natalia; Auriol, Laudeline, eds. 2016. The Science and Technology Labor Force. The Value of Doctorate Holders and Development of Professional Careers. Cham, Springer.

[7] http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/full/472276a.html

 

Federico Vasen is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Buenos Aires, Argentina. His interests revolve around the management of science and technology in research organizations and higeher education institutions, and the regulatory fameworks of technological products.