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  • Mexican scientists face budget doubts

Concern is growing among Mexican scientists following significant cuts in research funding and the closure of a number of programmes that had been established to develop the country’s scientific base.

Both moves appear to many researchers to conflict with a promise made by president Vicente Fox in his election campaign in 2000 to put science and technology high on the government’s agenda.

Last year saw a drop in the number of research projects that were funded, the halting of a programme intended to attract Mexican scientists back from overseas, and delays in payment for thousands of Mexican scientists.

“It has probably been the worst year for Mexican science in 10 years,” says René Drucker, president of the Mexico’s National Academy of Sciences. “The amount of money destined for research has been drastically reduced.”

CONACYT, the country’s main research funding agency, financed only 367 research projects in 2001, compared to an average of about 1,000 projects per year from 1995 to 2000.

But CONACYT denies that it is facing a long-term crisis. “There is a reorganisation in the funding of research in Mexico,” says Armando Reyes, director of communications at CONACYT. Research projects previously supported by CONACYT will continue to be funded by the government, he says. But the money will come from other government departments, such as the ministries of health and economics.

Reyes points out that CONACYT’s budget in 2001 was 3,300 million pesos (US$360.3 million) — 10 per cent more than in 2000 — and that its budget for 2002 is up more than 22 per cent on last year.

But he admits that an extra US$32 million normally transferred from the Ministry of Public Education to CONACYT at the end of each year did not materialise in 2001, leading to a short-term cash-flow problem. “There has been a reduction in funds in the short term, but in the long term this will not last,” he says

Drucker, however, is less upbeat about the state of Mexican science. He points, for example, to the fact that about 8,000 Mexican scientists that make up the National System of Researchers (SNI) did not receive their December payment from CONACYT.

Although the researchers were eventually paid — on 31 January, out of CONACYT’s budget for 2002 — Drucker argues that the delay in payments is a bad sign for Mexican science: “It’s not the payment that matters so much as the attitude of the government towards scientists,” he says.

In a statement issued last week (28 January) about the delay in payment, CONACYT acknowledges “the anxiety expressed recently by the scientific community”. But it promises that its increased budget, as well as changes in its operational practices, will lead to “a substantial increase in 2002 in the number of members of the SNI and the number of grants, research projects, special programmes and repatriations.”

It also recommends that high-quality projects whose requests for funding were rejected by CONACYT in 2001 should reapply.

But Drucker fears that the impact of last year’s events may be irreversible. “We are in great danger because it has taken us a long time to build up a small — but relatively strong and high quality — scientific system,” he says.

“Words are easily said, but it’s actions that count," he says. "Everything said so far by [President Fox’s] administration in relation to science has not happened. There are big gaps between what is said and what is done.”

© SciDev.Net 2002

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