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  • Mexico pledges more money for science

The Mexican government has pledged to invest an extra 6 billion pesos (US$588 million) in science and technology compared to last year as part of a five-year science and technology programme approved by the country's parliament last month.

The move appears to align with pledges made by President Vicente Fox during his 2000 election campaign to boost investment in science and technology as a way of ensuring economic growth and creating employment.

Some Mexican scientists are sceptical of the real impact that the initiative, known as the 'Special Science and Technology Programme 2001-2006', will have on the nation's beleaguered scientific system. They doubt that the targets set are realistic, and question the programme's emphasis on increasing industry's involvement in science.
But government officials are optimistic that the targets can be met, and that the programme will give a much-needed boost to Mexican science.

The programme — which outlines national targets on spending and human resources in science for 2006 and 2025 — sets out the government's goal of increasing spending on science and technology from the current level of 0.4 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 1 per cent by 2006. It also aims to double the number of researchers in the same period from 25,000 to 50,000.

The National System of Researchers — an organisation established by the Mexican federal government to encourage researchers of outstanding quality — is to be reformed under the new programme, giving greater emphasis to training, science communication and links with industry.

The programme, which has been developed in the framework of a science and technology law that came into force in April, seeks to ensure more private sector involvement in science and technology. It states that the private sector should contribute 40 per cent of the country's investment in science and technology by 2006, compared to the current level of 24 per cent.

"This goal is ambitious, but achievable," says Jaime Parada Ávila, director general of CONACYT, the country’s main research funding agency. The target could be reached if the 500 largest companies in Mexico each invested 1.5 per cent of their profits in research and development, he said.

Some researchers are less upbeat about the proposal. "The goals [of the programme] are appealing, but I don't know how they're going to achieve them," says Margarita Rosado of the Astronomy Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City.

The programme is simply an attempt to cover up appearances, according to Rosado. "The programme is far removed from reality. The government's current actions go against the aims that they have announced [in the programme]".

She adds: "You can't train a scientist or technologist in two or three years. It takes years and years. The targets aren't realistic." Furthermore, she says, the programme is in essence targeted more at industry than at improving basic science.

But other scientists have been more enthusiastic about the government’s plans. Speaking at the formal presentation of the programme in October last year, Luis Herrera Estrella, director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit of the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados in Irapuato, described the initiative as ambitious, novel and daring.

"It's the most structured programme to date for science and technology," he said. "Whether or not it works depends on whether all the sectors involved — industry, academia and government — make a real commitment to working together and to successfully achieving these ambitious targets."

According to Ana María Cetto of the Institute of Physics at UNAM, however, the current Mexican situation does not look promising. "The reality is that science and technology is in a bad state — more so now than in the past," she says. "Funds have run out and are not being replenished, and conditions for research are very worrying."

In particular, she says, public universities — the main centres of scientific research and teaching — have are very financially restricted, and have zero possibility of taking on new staff. "This means that recently qualified young scientists — of which there are many, and with good training — are being lost to us. And this industrial base that is supposedly going to give them jobs just does not exist."

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