At a research institute in Argentina, a group of scientists are hard at work cataloging the glaciers that litter the country. Six years later, Dr. Ricardo Villalba stands in court, accused of manipulating research for corporate gain. But what is the truth behind this indictment, and what does it mean for the future of scientific research?
Dr. Villalba is a geoscientist who studied at the University of Colorado. After graduating, Villalba took a postdoc position at Columbia University in New York. Today, he works as a senior researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Over the course of his career, Villalba has conducted hundreds of research projects. Most of these focus around the areas of climate change, resource management and ecology. Then, in 2005, he began the role that would become his most controversial yet. Still in Argentina, Villalba took over as head of the country’s National Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research, or IANIGLA.
Five years after Villalba’s appointment, a law was passed that was designed to protect Argentina’s glaciers. Recognizing their importance as water reserves, the country’s senate elected to preserve the glaciers by restricting industrial activity in surrounding areas. As part of this new legislation, IANIGLA was tasked with creating a National Inventory of Glaciers. It was the first such inventory in Argentina’s history.
In 2011, work on the inventory began. Under Villalba’s direction, a team of scientists used satellite images of Argentina’s terrain to document the country’s glaciers. Although the research is still ongoing, it has currently cataloged more than 14,500 ice bodies with a combined area of over 2,000 square miles.
The scientists behind the glacier inventory hope that it will help Argentina’s authorities to better understand this vital resource. However, there are some who claim that Villalba’s research was biased from the start. In fact, according to activists in the northern community of San José de Jáchal, the results were deliberately manipulated in order to favor corporate interests.
In September 2015 the region found itself facing serious ecological disaster when the Veladero mine – one of the largest gold mines in the world – accidentally leaked cyanide into the environment. To make matters worse, activists claimed that the area should have been protected by the new glacier law. They alleged that Villalba’s survey had deliberately overlooked ice in the locality of the mine in order to allow mining to continue.
Apparently, when the survey began, Villalba opted to only include glaciers that covered a minimum of one hectare (around 2.5 acres) in size. But activists claim that this decision played a direct role in the Veladero disaster. Because the glacier in the area around the mine was smaller than Villalba’s stipulated size, it wasn’t included in the survey. Without this recognition, they say, the region was not protected. Disastrous mining activity was thus permitted to continue unchecked.
Convinced that Villalba and his team had acted in contravention to the new legislation, a group of environmental activists filed a lawsuit against them. Then, on November 27, 2017, the case found its way to court. In an indictment, Villalba was charged with abusing his authority and failing to comply with the terms of the 2010 law.
Although the activists did not explicitly refer to Villalba the individual, Argentinian law states that, as the leader of the accused organization, he is liable for criminal charges. Moreover, as the case progresses, the scientist has been barred from leaving the country. Assets worth almost $300,000 have also been seized from his estate.
On December 4, 2017, Villalba appeared in court to appeal against the charges. While he claims to be sympathetic to the activists’ concerns, Villalba believes that they are laying blame in the wrong place. “There was no intention of favoring mining companies,” he told Science magazine. “No Argentinian institution has done more to safeguard and protect glaciers than IANIGLA.”
Instead, Villalba believes that the activists should be focusing their ire on the mining companies responsible for the spill. In addition, it has been pointed out by his supporters that the one-hectare limit is a standard applied by researchers universally. It wasn’t one chosen by Villalba for the purposes of his report.
In fact, more than 130 scientists from institutions around the world have signed a letter of support for Villalba. In it, they state their respect for his methods and reiterate that he is a highly regarded figure. Furthermore, they point out that he was a co-recipient of 2007’s Nobel Peace Prize and has done excellent work in the field of climate change.
“This assertion of responsibility and causality for the cyanide spill is not only fallacious reasoning,” the letter read, “but is also a scientifically false characterization of the quality of mapping performed under the National Glacier Inventory.”
Furthermore, Villalba’s supporters believe that the charges against him represent a frightening trend for the scientific community. “This unbelievable story illustrates a lack of trust and growing defiance of the policymakers and general public toward scientific results,” glaciologist Etienne Berthier told Science. “This is dangerous.”
Bruce Raup, a glaciologist from Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, agrees. “It’s surreal and kind of ridiculous,” he told Nature. Moreover, Raup pointed out that Villalba’s method of disregarding glaciers below one hectare in size was common within their area of study. Apparently, it is a decision often taken by researchers to avoid accidentally classifying transient ice and snow.
For some, the case is a worrying reminder of what occurred in Italy back in 2012. That year, six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter after failing to warn the public about the dangers of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. According to the prosecution, 29 people had perished as a result of the experts’ inaccurate advice.
Although the seismologists were cleared of all charges in 2014, the case has left a lasting effect on the scientific community. Villalba’s colleagues argue that his research did nothing to favor the mining companies. However, environmental activists dealing with the aftermath of the Veladero spill remain unconvinced.
Interestingly, the law so far has sided with the activists. In court, Judge Sebastián Casanello agreed that IANIGLA had acted against the 2010 law. In this way, they had prevented many bodies of ice in the region from being properly inventoried and thus protected. Furthermore, Judge Casanello added that Veladero is a particularly arid region, meaning that water resources should have been afforded even greater protection.
Currently, Villalba is waiting to find out if the case will go to trial. If it does, it will see three former Argentinian ministers in court alongside him on similar charges. Meanwhile, the outcome of the argument remains difficult to predict. Whatever the result, though, it is clear that the implications for the scientific community will be felt many years down the line.