Chileans reject a constitution that framed science as a tool for social, economic reforms

Chileans reject a constitution that framed science as a tool for social, economic reforms


The votes are in and many scientists are disappointed. On September 4, Chileans voted to reject a proposed new constitution for their nation.

The draft charter, developed over a year by a citizen-led assembly, framed science as a tool that could improve society. It also emphasised actions against climate change and support for research across all of Chile, rather than only at institutions in the capital city.

“I feel very lost,” says Andrea Vera Gajardo, a mathematician at the University of Valparaíso who volunteered as an electoral observer. “I don’t understand the choice Chile made.”

Polling before the vote indicated that Chileans would reject the document and all of its 388 articles. In late August, more than 1,200 scientists – including principal investigators, post-doctorates, students and research assistants – signed a letter encouraging people to approve the draft. But about 62 per cent of voters did the opposite during Sunday’s mandatory plebiscite.

“My gut tells me that fear won,” says Bárbara Rojas-Ayala, an astronomer at the University of Tarapacá in Arica, who endorsed the letter.

In addition to bolstering science, the proposed charter suggested drastic changes to Chile’s economic and political systems that people weren’t ready for, she says. For instance, to protect nature and transition towards a sustainable society, it called for stepping away from an economic model based on extracting natural resources from Earth. Many people – and some of the country’s biggest industries – disapproved.

If accepted, the draft constitution would have replaced the current version, put in place in 1980 during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Now, the way forward is unclear. Chile’s left-wing President Gabriel Boric, whose government is aligned with many of the ideas in the draft, indicated that the process would not end with Sunday’s vote.

Since the plebiscite, he has met with the heads of Chile’s political parties and both chambers of Congress to find another route towards a new constitution. And he has replaced members of his cabinet, including his minister of science, with more moderate figures.

The charter’s rejection “was not the result we had hoped for”, says Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist at the University of Antofagasta and a member of the constitutional assembly that created the draft. The causes of the unrest that led to the reform process have yet to be fixed, she adds.

In October 2019, what began as protests against a metro-fare increase in Chile’s capital, Santiago, rapidly evolved into a nationwide outcry against decades-long social and economic inequalities. Thousands of Chileans rallied in the streets, demanding political reform. They saw the current constitution as the source of many problems. And a year later, the country voted to replace the document.

For Laura Ramajo, a climate scientist at the Centre for Advanced Studies of Arid Zones in La Serena, the vote against the draft can’t be the end of the story. “Many of those articles in the new constitution regarding the environment were necessary,” she says.

Chile is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, research has shown. In northern Chile, food insecurity and water scarcity have become major issues. In central Chile, longer and more frequent heatwaves have been taking a toll: since 2010, a rainfall deficit has created a ‘mega-drought’ there, affecting the livelihoods of more than ten million people1. And in the southern region, Patagonia, the number of wildfires has grown at an alarming rate.

And yet, Chileans voted against the draft. Preliminary surveys suggest some did so because they thought the changes would bring instability to the nation. Others saw the constitutional assembly that drafted the document — mostly made up of citizens such as scientists, students and artists, including representatives of Indigenous groups — as flawed. An August survey by Paris-based market-research firm Ipsos suggests that people would be more accepting of a document crafted by experts in constitutional law, with only help from citizens. Many more disagreed with some of the proposed articles — such as those that would have protected reproductive rights, given autonomy to at least 11 groups of the nation’s Indigenous peoples or eliminated the Senate.

“Any of the 388 articles you didn’t like were 388 opportunities to reject” the new constitution, says Andrea Peroni, a historian and public-policy researcher at the University of Chile in Santiago.

Felipe Paredes, a Chilean biochemist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the millions of people who disliked the proposed document. He agreed with some of it, such as the way it prioritized social and human rights, but he also felt things were missing.

For example, the draft did not include any mention of funding for science. “I needed a clear signal that there was going to be more investment. I did not see that,” Paredes says. He also wanted to see explicit protection of patents and industrial property rights, which is included in the current constitution. Without that, private investment might be driven away from Chilean science, he says.

Still, he strongly supports replacing the 1980 constitution. Even though the proposed text was rejected, he hopes politicians will realize that Chileans still want change.

At the very least, researchers say, the process of drafting a new constitution has initiated talks about science and how it should be linked to the country’s development. “Everything we discussed about the role of science in the climate emergency, how we do science, at what pace, for whom — that’s never happened before,” says Vera Gajardo. “We can’t lose that.”

Dorador Ortiz agrees. “We’ve learned that science and knowledge must connect with citizens,” she says — as well as that scientists should no longer be mere spectators when it comes to the issues that shape the country. “It’s important that researchers participate in science diplomacy, in public policymaking — it’s needed and urgent.”

  • A Nature report
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