A few seconds after a tear-gas canister burst near Marcelo Jaque’s feet, breathing became nearly impossible. Jaque, an astronomer at the University of La Serena in Chile, ran with his partner to safety as fellow protesters began choking and vomiting or fell unconscious. What moments earlier had been a peaceful demonstration dissolved into chaos as police forces tried to disperse the crowd.

The demonstration in La Serena on 21 October was part of a nationwide upheaval that started three days earlier owing to a metro fare hike in Santiago, Chile’s capital, which sparked mass demonstrations across the country. The increase of 30 Chilean pesos (US$0.04) was the last straw for people fed up with decades of socio-economic inequality and government corruption. Protesters point to tax-fraud scandals, the soaring cost of education and health care, and the lack of dignity with which they say minority groups have been treated as examples of the ongoing problems.

The demonstrations have since become violent, with news reports of some protesters setting government buildings on fire and police officers and the military using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullet to disperse the crowds. The clashes show little signs of slowing.

Researchers in Chile share in the concerns and frustrations that have sparked the protests — and many, like Jaque, have joined in. But they also realize that the country’s scientific community is a privileged group, and bears some responsibility for helping to perpetuate the current political and societal situation. This has prompted some researchers to meet with government officials to help address Chile’s socio-economic issues.

“It’s not about 30 pesos; it’s about 30 years,” says Carolina Rojas, a geographer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, who supports the protesters. Government policies have widened the socio-economic gap among Chileans since 1990, when the country emerged from a brutal dictatorship. One per cent of the wealthiest people in the country earn 33% of the nation’s income, while nearly 70% of Chilean workers earn $500 or less per month. Rojas’s mother, a retired elementary school teacher, receives a monthly pension of just $150, she says.

A violent response

Since late October, several universities have temporarily closed their doors in response to safety concerns and an eight-day government-imposed curfew — as well as to allow students to participate in the protests. The turmoil has also led to a change in venue for a global climate summit scheduled for 2–13 December in Santiago to Madrid, Spain. “Mentally, it’s really difficult to work these days,” says Jaque.

Most worrying for everyone, including researchers, is the escalating violence. In its most recent count, released on 6 November, Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights reported that more than 1,700 civilians had been taken to hospital after being injured in the demonstrations. The institute also alleges that security forces have killed, tortured and sexually assaulted protesters. The head of the national police has denied that law enforcement officers have violated human rights during the protests. More than 1,000 security forces across the country have been injured as a result of the demonstrations, according to the police.

The violence hasn’t stopped the protests, but many are frightened. “I think we’re all fearful,” says Facundo Gómez, an astrophysicist at the University of La Serena, which cancelled classes on 21 October and has yet to restart them. On 28 October, Gómez and his colleagues posted a letter online protesting the 22 October detention of three students from their institution who were subsequently “tortured, humiliated and threatened to be thrown into the river”, according to a statement from the university student council.

Claudio Gutiérrez, a computer scientist at the University of Chile in Santiago who has participated in the protests, also worries about the safety of his family. “I have three sons aged 16, 18 and 20,” he says. “I’m terrified because they all dash out the door every day at around 2.00 p.m. to go join the demonstrations.”

Finding a way forward

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera reversed the metro fare increase soon after the initial riots. But protesters are demanding broader, deeper changes to the country’s economic and political system. Many are even pushing for a new constitution to replace the current one, which was instituted during the dictatorship.

So far, the only attempt by lawmakers to start a dialogue with citizens has been a series of meetings with researchers set up by the science and technology commission in Chile’s Senate. Starting in late October, around 50 scientists spoke to the senators on the commission about how to address the country’s socio-economic problems.

They agreed that change will require input from a cross-section of society, but that the scientific community needs do its part. Some researchers say that reforming how science is funded could help. One nascent idea includes changing how scientists are evaluated for government funding so as to prioritise research that might improve the country at a national or local level, says Gutiérrez. This would encourage more researchers to work on projects that benefit Chileans, such as solving the country’s current water crisis or studying the poorest populations near big cities in order to help them, he says.

Others, such as Cecilia Hidalgo, a biochemist at the University of Chile and president of the Chilean Academy of Science, view the moment as an opportunity to increase federal research spending and bolster science in the country. As of 2017, the latest year for which data are available, Chile spent roughly 0.4% of its gross domestic product on science and technology, compared with an average of 0.6% for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

But some point out that this might only benefit scientists. “To increase the budget for what?” Gutiérrez asks. “So that the country’s 10 or 15 major research centres keep publishing, making agreements with international agencies and the rest of the country remains the same?”

Rojas thinks that the protests will permanently change Chile, although she can’t say how. It’s imperative that the scientific community decides how to best participate in the country’s future, she says. “We can’t let [Chile] fall apart,” Rojas adds. “That might mean postponing research projects or publications. But it seems to me that the country is more worthwhile.”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 11, 2019.