Dr Ricardo Villalba, an internationally lauded and respected scientist, led the National Institute of Snow, Ice and Environmental Research (IANIGLA) in Argentina, from 2005 until 2015. Now, in a dramatic twist, he has been indicted on criminal charges involving a Canadian mining company, along with three other ex-environmental ministers.
So – what happened to this continuously rising star?
As reported by Science, those listed on the indictment are accused of favoring a mining company over the greater public good. They’ve been charged with “abuse of authority”, under a 2010 law that aimed to keep glaciated areas protected.
Argentina is home to a wide range of enormous glaciers, including most famously the colossal Perito Moreno Glacier. Plenty of glaciers like this are important sources of drinking water.
The indictment notes that glaciated areas that should have been protected under Villalba’s tenure were not, and as a result, mining was allowed to take place too close to several key water catchment areas. Consequently, several incidences of contamination occurred, most notably including cyanide leaks from the Veladero mine, which effused into a major watershed on at least two different occasions.
As explained by Nature, the international definition of a glacier uses satellites. Back in 2011, Villalba decided that only glaciers over 1 hectare (2.5 acres) in size counted. This is a conservative measure designed to not mistake snow patches for glaciers – and thus overestimate how many glaciers are left – but sometimes, smaller glaciers aren’t counted, and thus aren’t protected under Argentinian law.
Grassroot environmental activists protested, and suggested that the reason small glaciers weren’t included in the inventory was so that nearby mines operated by the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation didn’t suffer from additional regulations. Now, it looks like the courts will decide how true or not this is.
Cases like this aren’t always as black and white as they first appear. Sometimes, legislative processes involving scientists can get things wrong.
Just recently, for example, Europe’s top court shocked vaccine experts when it ruled in favor of a man who claimed he got multiple sclerosis from his hepatitis B vaccine, despite there being no evidence for any link. In this case, legal wording overcame rigorous scientific practices.
How about those geologists that were convicted of manslaughter for the advice they gave back in 2012 when the L’Aquila earthquake struck?
Predicting when an earthquake will occur, how powerful it will be, and what damage it will do is notoriously difficult. Back in 2012, a team of scientists in Italy played it cautiously, gave out some debatable scientific advice on the possibility of a major tremor in the region, and ultimately missed the mark. Facing some serious jail time, they were ultimately exonerated.
Villalba’s case is quite different from these two, but there is a parallel theme here: who should ultimately be responsible for negative outcomes? Villalba suggests that those responsible for the pollution itself should be brought to justice, not the scientist(s) that constructed the glacial boundaries in Argentina.
Many scientists, including his former colleagues, agree with him. In an open letter, they note that “Dr Villalba is an exemplary model of an interdisciplinary, international, collaborative scientist”, adding that he is internationally recognized as a researcher, mentor, and collaborator.
They describe the indictment as “false” and “unjust”, and explain that it sets a worrying precedent that undermines public trust in scientists. The case “not only endangers the continuation of that long-term painstaking scientific program but it also defames the competency, honesty, and integrity of the collaborative team of researchers who implement [it].”
According to Los Andes, supporters of the beleaguered scientist are organizing a protest march.