Peru’s new president is controversial. Here’s why scientists have high hopes for him

The surprising victory of Pedro Castillo in Peru’s June presidential elections has worried many in the country’s business elite. Castillo, a former schoolteacher and union leader who defeated Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former president, has promised major changes to reduce poverty and inequality, including increasing taxes on the mining sector, Peru’s economic backbone. Castillo has made controversial appointments, including Guido Bellido, the new prime minister, who is under preliminary investigation for posting a Facebook tribute to a deceased member of Shining Path, a Marxist terrorist group. But among Peruvian scientists, his early moves have raised hopes.

Castillo has appointed a leading scientist as a top adviser and said he will address systemic problems in Peruvian science, including low budgets, a weak governance system, and a lack of prospects for young researchers. He has also vowed to better manage the country’s response to the pandemic. With more than 6000 reported deaths per million inhabitants, Peru has one of the highest mortality rates in the world from COVID-19.

Peru spends only 0.12% of its gross domestic product on science, far below the 0.6% average in Latin America. The country has 0.2 scientists per 1000 people, compared with 1.3 for Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, and 12.7 on average among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In May, after he had won the first round of the elections, the amauta (the Quechua word for teacher, and Castillo’s nickname) promised to significantly increase health and education budgets, elevate science and technology’s role, and create a new science ministry. In a 22 May letter, 50 Peruvian scientists, most of them trained outside Peru, welcomed those proposals and urged him to adopt a new national science, technology, and innovation policy. Peru’s science system, the letter said, requires “profound changes that have been postponed by governments in recent decades and that the pandemic has brought to light.”

That same month, Castillo asked physicist Modesto Montoya of the National University of Engineering (UNI), one of the country’s best known scientists, to create a panel to outline a new career path for scientists and a structure for a future Ministry of Science to replace the leadership role of the National Council of Science and Technology (Concytec). The informal group met with Castillo at the presidential palace on 27 August, and Montoya, who has a good relationship with the new president, was appointed presidential adviser on scientific matters on 8 September.

Montoya says Peru’s public research centers are “disjointed, competing against each other, duplicating efforts, and wasting money.” In June, Peru’s previous Congress enacted a new science policy law that sought to address those problems. The creation of a dedicated science ministry should improve coordination, Montoya says. “Priorities are defined in the Council of Ministers,” he says. “If South Korea, Chile, and Colombia created [a science ministry], why wouldn’t we?”

“It is time to land on a more solid structure that would ensure that science focuses on the needs of the country,” adds Martha Esther Valdivia Cuya, a biologist at the National University of San Marcos, who attended the 27 August meeting.

Researchers also hope the new administration will do more to stop or reverse Peru’s brain drain. The country offers financial incentives to bring researchers home and set them up at a Peruvian institution. But the system does not guarantee good working conditions after their arrival.

Chemist María Esther Quintana Cáceda, who obtained a Ph.D. at UNI in collaboration with Uppsala University and did postdoctoral research on nanomaterials for solar cells at the Royal Stockholm Institute of Technology, returned to UNI in 2011 and faced obstacles. “There is no good equipment here, and it is not easy to buy materials and reagents,” Quintana Cáceda says. Recently, she led a team that developed a new method to remove lead and other heavy metals from lake water. The project won a Concytec grant, but that lasted only a year. “My team had to look for other jobs,” Quintana Cáceda says.
The scientific community hopes Castillo will be able to create more—and more attractive—research jobs, improve laboratory conditions, and simplify funding procedures. “Offering researchers a career prospect not only helps attract talent, but is also a way to keep young people in the country,” says economist Neantro Saavedra-Rivano of the University of Brasília, another researcher who supported Castillo’s candidacy.

In his Plan for the Pandemic, released in May, Castillo promised to strengthen the role of science in finding solutions to COVID-19. “We need to start doing more cost-effective interventions,” says former Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Antonio Quispe, who now works as an adviser of the Peruvian Ministry of Health, where one of his tasks is to bring pandemic data together in open repositories and reduce bureaucratic barriers. “So far, the president has given us all the conditions and the budget to face the worst-case scenario,” Quispe says. Castillo has also pledged to establish electronic medical records, educate decision-makers about the use of scientific evidence, and even promote the development of a Peruvian COVID-19 vaccine.

Whether Castillo can make good on his lofty promises remains to be seen. Peru Libre, his party, has only 37 of the 130 seats in Parliament; the first 6 weeks of his presidency have been rocky, and the new administration has many other priorities, including the economy. (Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Peru’s rating 2 weeks ago, citing a “continuously polarized and fractured political environment.”) But based on his interactions with Castillo so far, Montoya remains optimistic. “We trust that the government will keep its promises and treat scientists well,” he says.

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