Meet the scientists who want to help write Chile’s new constitution

Demonstrators waved the Chilean flag in front of a burning church in October 2020, 1 week before voters overwhelmingly supported writing a new national constitution.


SANTIAGO, CHILE—As soon as it became clear from October 2020’s national referendum that Chileans had voted overwhelmingly to rewrite their constitution—chucking the current, dictatorship-era document in favor of a charter to be written by an elected body—astronomer Diego Mardones called a colleague, who is one of the country’s most prominent scientists, to find out whether he planned to run for a seat in the new constitutional assembly. After José Maza Sancho, an astrophysicist widely beloved for his work in science communication, said he would not be a candidate, Mardones decided to take up the torch: He is now one of hundreds of candidates—including more than a dozen researchers—on the ballot in the historic election to be held this weekend. 

“It’s really important to have scientists represented in the [constitutional] assembly,” says Mardones, who studies star formation at the University of Chile here.

The 15–16 May elections will select the 155 representatives, from 28 districts, who will spend the next year crafting the new constitution, which will be put to a national vote in 2022. At least 18 candidates hail from the world of science and research. Several told ScienceInsider they are running because they believe scientists need to have a seat at the table, both to make sure that research interests are considered in drafting the constitution, but also because scientists have unique expertise to bring to issues such as natural resource management, public health, and climate change.

Nearly 80% of Chileans voted in favor of a new constitution after massive, nationwide protests erupted in 2019. Those protests were triggered by opposition to a hike in public transportation fares, but ultimately morphed into broader calls for social, economic, and political change in a nation struggling with inequality. In 2019, half of Chilean workers earned $550 a month or less, despite the nation’s long-held reputation as one of South America’s most prosperous nations thanks, in part, to profitable industries in mining, agriculture, and aquaculture.

A new constitution is a chance to begin to address such issues, says Adriana Bastías, a plant biologist at the Autonomous University of Chile, Santiago, and co-founder of the Chilean Network of Women Scientists (Redl) who is running for a seat in the assembly. She’s pleased that election rules bar anyone who already holds political office from winning an assembly seat, commit at least 45% of seats to women, and reserve 17 seats for representatives from Chile’s Indigenous groups. If elected, Bastías says, her goal would be to help draft constitutional provisions that “improve access to education, health, and social security,” and help institute a model of governance and economic planning “that’s environmentally sustainable.”

Barbarita Lara Martínez, a candidate who also is a member of RedI, is an inventor and tech entrepreneur who dedicates much of her time to mentoring students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. She says one reason she’s glad to see researchers running is that young people need more role models from Chile’s scientific community. But Lara Martínez also wants to make sure the new constitution advances “modern digital rights,” such as universal access to the internet and safeguards for digital privacy. During the pandemic many educators found themselves developing programs for TV and radio in the hopes of reaching children and adolescents who didn’t have internet access, she notes. “Today, more than ever, digital rights are something that we’re seeing as absolutely necessary,” Lara Martínez says.

Some researchers running for the assembly, including Mardones, want to include language in the constitution that recognizes the usefulness of scientific advice in making national policy decisions, and frames government research spending as an investment rather than an expense. Ideally, Mardones says, the constitution would call for annual increases in Chile’s investment in R&D. “We have to include things that will be drivers for continuous change over the decades to come,” he says.

Campaigning has been a challenge for many of the scientists, who by and large are new to politics and have relatively few connections that can help. In some cases, they continue to lead their research teams while also juggling caring for children at home during pandemic lockdowns.

Microbiologist Cristina Dorador, a candidate who works at the University of Antofagasta, says she has little funding and virtually no access to TV coverage. To overcome those limitations, “My campaign has been mostly focused in social networks and for that we have to create a lot of content every day,” says Dorador, who has continued her professional responsibilities while relying on friends and colleagues to staff her campaign. “We are very tired.”

The science candidates are optimistic that at least a few of them will win seats. Mardones, after speaking with voters, studying constitutions from around the world, and learning about issues from pension reform to nutrition plans, says he plans to remain politically active no matter the outcome. As a result of the campaign, he says, “I have changed a lot.”

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