Social Sciences Argentina , Buenos Aires, Tuesday, July 15 of 2014, 10:00

“We have to promote the development of a regional conscience”

Sara Rietti, the first nuclear chemist in Argentina, talked with TSS about the need to build a Latin American scientific and technological way of thinking that answers to the region’s needs and that confronts hegemonic interests

NADIA LUNA/AGENCIA TSS/DICYT Sara Rietti speaks about Andrés Carrasco and gets emotional. She is the first nuclear chemist in Argentina; a pioneer in a world in which podiums were (and still are) exclusively for men; a woman that resisted the police’s “bastones largos” (long batons), sent by Onganía’s military government, when they forcefully entered the building of UBA’s Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales; someone who spent that dark night in 1966 retrieveing her colleagues from the police station, together with her husband, Victor Rietti; a woman who organized their exile to other countries in the region. “I made an effort to keep the researchers in Latin America, because if they left to the huge centers, then they did not return,” recalls Rietti, who was in charge of repatriating them after the recovery of democracy, from her position as Manuel Sadosky’s chief of staff, in the Secretariat for Science and Technology.


Rietti, with a career span of six decades, at the age of 84 still writes articles, visits universities, and collects disciples. She was once the disciple of Oscar Varsavsky (“I remain one, I still have a lot to learn ,” she will say, later) and, as himself, she was always a supporter of the democratization of scientific knowledge, for the promotion of a society that has an active role in building a scientific and technological system that works for the country’s needs. Rietti is a “politicized” scientist, as she characterizes Carrasco, the researcher that denounced the adverse effects of glyphosate and that worked shoulder to shoulder with the affected communities until his death. Sitting in a room of a house that is also bursting with history, the scientist remembers Carrasco and gets emotional. She gets emotional because he was her friend and because they shared a way of understanding science and technology that can be defined as committed, democratic, and sovereign.


“It is very important for me for there to be participation, for people to feel they have a leading role, for us not to invent everything. When you let people think, they are very wise. See how the mothers in Ituzaingó, Córdoba, observing what was happening around them, started to detect that there were more cases of malformations than usual. They did not have to graduate from medical school for that,” stresses Rietti, her deep blue eyes wide open, to confirm her admiration for other pioneering women like her, the first ones to systematically denounce agrochemicals’ toxicity. “And Andrés confirmed it in the laboratory with embryos; that is why he was persecuted so much. For us, scientists, it is a responsibility to follow that path.”


Rietti is decisive: for central countries, science and technology is an important domination tool. “Here, we plant what they do not want in Europe, because they do not want agrochemicals or transgenics. We are in a colonial position.” For this reason, she stresses that it is of fundamental importance to implement a science and technology policy capable of confronting the interests of large economic groups and of including the society in the definition of goals and research topics.


For this to happen, the scientist states that the role of universities is key in the democratization of knowledge, and she mentions several examples. The Red de Médicos de Pueblos Fumigados (network of doctors from fumigated villages) was formed in the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, as a result of the actions taken by Madres de Ituzaingó. National universities from Rosario and Greater Buenos Aires take on commitments to do works for and with the community, to attend issues that have to do with the sanitation of rivers and disease prevention campaigns. The Universidad Nacional de Lanús has a connection with the Policlínico Evita, in that same municipality. “It is very important for the university to get involved with the population, because it is a way of teaching lessons, so that people take on a leading role in their own health,” she stresses.


TSS – Do public policies promote society’s participation in science and technology as well?

I can say that I have educated the minister. I have collaborated a lot with them in the beginning, when the ministry was being organized, and helped choosing what I felt was the right path. They have created several popular initiatives, such as Tecnópolis, which I have supported strongly.


TSS – However, the State also has policies that promote the soy model, which generates problems for society, such as the expansion of monoculture—which harms regional economies—, or the toxic effects of the agrochemicals you mentioned before.

But I believe that that is, partly, because of their ignorance. I had thought about calling the president and explaining her some things… It is important for people to maintain the capacity to produce their own food, to keep the conservation traditions of their environment, to take care of the water. Respecting that is respecting the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples. We have to avoid polluting the soil and the water for populations to maintain their original places, for them to avoid having to move to the surroundings of large cities. The issue is that industrial development sometimes sweeps everything away. Maintaining local production occupies the territory. Otherwise, we will have a great industrial development in an empty country.


Breaking the chains of scientific colonialism


Rietti speaks passionately of the democratization of knowledge; as if she were drafting the idea for the first time, even though she has advocated for it during her entire lifetime. Her concerns about making a sovereign science and technology were always divided into two key aspects. One is the need for a continuous “dialogue” with society to find out which are its problems and to define research taking them into account. The other aspect also has to do with communication, but in this case internal to the academic world: the publication of scientific journals. How can we build a Latin American way of thinking in science and technology that addresses the region’s problems, when a paper’s quality parameters are set by countries like the United States, Great Britain, or Germany?


Publish or perish. The motto is clear; Rietti, too. For her, the system is a large chain of subjectivities which are disguised as objective criteria in order to hide the interests of the hegemonic countries that set the ground rules The links are several and hard to break. Scientists need to publish their work in journals with a high “impact factor” (a quality parameter imposed by great powers, obviously) to obtain a highest score when their research career is evaluated. But those with greatest impact are foreign. Thus, the jury that accepts or rejects the publication of an article comes from the central countries. This conditions the topic selections, because a researcher that works with diseases that are endemic in the region, such as Chagas, will raise less interest. Besides, the language of science is English; so many times scientists directly write the results of their work in that language, without even going through Spanish first.


The solution Rietti proposes to break the chains is concrete, but far from simple. “It is fundamental that we recognize the value of publishing locally, to give a higher score to those who publish their results here,” she states. “Science needs confrontation and communication. It is central to achieve a critical mass and an academic quality so that we can publish in regional journals that allow us to avoid the demand of publishing in international ones, which somehow limit us.”


Thus, the scientist insists that the State has to promote the internal communication of results within the regional scientific community, as well as the popularization of their work for the society in general. This can be done, for instance, by changing researchers’ evaluation criteria, by giving higher scores to those who publish in local scientific journals and who conduct media outreach activities in different areas; and by supporting the creation of regional publications that establish alternative ground rules, compatible to the science the country needs.


In this sense, Rietti stresses the need for an effective regional integration and for a smooth cooperation between Latin American countries. “The alliance with Brazil is substantive. I saw it very clearly from the beginning; that is a merit of mine. When I was consultant to Manuel (Sadosky), we promoted the setting up of the Centro Argentino-Brasileño de Biotecnología. Brazil was already far more consolidated.”


TSS – How can the technological dependence we have on Brazil be reversed?

With co-operation; by developing regional interests; by having the welfare of Brazil, Venezuela, and other countries in the region have a bearing on ours, and vice versa. We have to promote the development of a regional conscience. Although I believe that there is an understanding that this alliance gives us strength. Actually, the proposal is relatively simple; the problem is that we have to fight against international interests, which have penetrated great cities.


TSS – Do you think the State has the power to stop multinational corporations?

It is difficult, but I think that it is very important for the Sate to acknowledge that it is not a matter of going through a political administration, but of leaving the local patrimony for future generations. It is not easy to battle with the population in large cities, who many times all that want is having a brand new car. That is good, everything is respectable, but we have to respect the future as well. The issue is that political life is tough; and it happens in large cities; and there, what happens in the interior, the needs of the population, is forgotten. What we have to ask ourselves is: Science and technology for what? Science and technology for whom? For the society or for large international firms? What is better than having Argentine soil producing what the people needs? The national industry has to work for society’s needs, to produce modern machinery for agricultural production, and to distribute the technology throughout the country.


Rietti finishes talking and gets up from her armchair. Her short stature and small build can trick more than one unsuspected watcher. “The truth is that in spite of being this small, I achieved plenty. There are people following what I did; I have disciples in several cities,” she says, proudly. And she concludes: “I think I can rest in peace, I have left marks behind.”