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An Argentinean astronomer has been dropped as an unofficial advisor to the country's science department following protests from a labour union over his claim in the mid-1970s that scientists were not persecuted by the military dictatorship of the period.

According to the Association of Public Workers, 550 scientists had already lost their jobs by the date on which Hugo Levato, then a 22-year-old postgraduate student working in the United States, wrote a letter to Nature saying that it was "not true" that leftists were being persecuted in Argentina.

His 1976 letter states that it was only "terrorists and guilty people" who were being persecuted, and that this was not related to their political beliefs. Levato now says that those scientists who lost their posts were actually dismissed prior to the dictatorship, during the democratic government of Isabel Martínez de Perón.

But the labour union, which represents some government funded researchers, has complained that, given Levato's comments, it would be inappropriate for him to remain as an advisor to the head of the science department, Julio Del Bono, who was appointed by President Nestor Kirchner.

Levato told SciDev.Net that his letter had been prompted by another letter from a group of Italian scientists, describing the exodus of researchers from Argentina. He admits that he did not have firsthand knowledge of what was happening in the country at the time, but was relying on information in US newspapers.

According to Levato, Del Bono had earlier sought guidance on Levato’s past from the human rights secretary of Argentina, before the complaints were made. This investigation confirmed that Levato had no links to the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

The astronomer, who works as a researcher for Argentina’s science and technology council, Conicet, told SciDev.Net that he had not formally resigned as an advisor to the science department, because this was not an official position. Rather, his role was in the context of Conicet researchers providing advice to science authorities when requested.

Levato claims that the union protests are part of an attempt to embarrass Del Bono following his rejection of its demands to increase scientists' salaries. But Carlos Girotti, the political action secretary of the Association of Public Workers in Buenos Aires and a professional of Conicet, denies that this is the case.

“We have been fighting for better salaries for the past 13 years, since the then-government froze them,” he says. “We have acted only on moral grounds. Levato denied the terrorism carried out by the military dictatorship."

Néstor Gaggioli, a scientist from the Atomic Energy Commission and Conicet, agrees that Levato was right to resign. “All those who collaborated or gave their support to the dictatorship should not be in senior posts,” he says.