Can recent policies and new programmes tackle Mexico's serious shortage of homegrown science and technology? Cecilia Rosen finds out.
[MEXICO CITY] Despite being one of the richest countries in Latin America, Mexico has made little headway in developing its own science and technology (S&T) programmes in recent years — and now its dependency on imported technology is reaching a critical level.
According to Arturo Menchaca-Rocha, president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, purchases of imported high-technology goods increased ten-fold over the past decade, royalty payments for technology went up by a factor of five — and royalties from home-grown Mexican technologies have halved.
"Today, Mexico buys 94 per cent of its technology — only six per cent is the result of our own inventions," Menchaca-Rocha tells SciDev.Net.
Many of the reasons are well known. Mexico is grappling with an increasing brain drain of scientists, which may have cost the country more than US$3 million last year, estimates Menchaca-Rocha. Training new scientists takes time and only one in 10,000 of the population has a PhD.
Other problems include small-scale, and often marginal or isolated, production of local technology, and a marked division between academia and industry — despite initiatives such as innovation offices at public universities and tax incentives for companies.
Poor integration of basic research and industry is one of the main reasons for turning to imported technologies.
When measured by patent production and inventive capacity, Mexico ranks last among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
"Science is not contributing to the development of the country — that's our biggest concern. The scientific and technological system was not designed to serve society," says Sergio Ulloa, former president of the Mexican Association of Directors of Applied Research and Technological Development (ADIAT).
The lack of effective and long-term associations between academia and the private sector is the most critical problem to address in the short term, he says.
In late 2009, the Science and Technological Consultative Forum (FCCyT) — an independent body that advises the government on S&T issues — and ten other organisations formed the Vincula group (vincula means 'connections' in Spanish), also known as the G11, to promote S&T on behalf of the 'triple helix': academia, government and industry. It is the first time the different sectors have worked together in this way.
"We now see businesspeople defending basic research and researchers defending innovation," says Juan Pedro Laclette, head of the group. "With this initiative, agreed by everyone, we have made a big change."
Menchaca-Rocha: 'Only six per cent of Mexican technology is our own invention'
ADIAT, which is part of the G11, recently launched a national programme to train specialists to transfer technology from research centres and universities to industry. Some 600 specialists have been trained since October and will start working at public and private institutions next year.
…and calling for incentives
The government's main technology initiative was a now-defunct programme of tax exemptions, set up in 2002 by the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) to stimulate research and innovation through tax exemptions to companies investing in Mexican R&D.
The council cancelled the US$1.3 billion programme in January 2009 after criticism that activities were not necessarily 'research', and that big companies were using it for tax avoidance.
Three new programmes to support different innovation stages in companies, particularly small- and medium- sized firms, were established, but many businesspeople and some academics want the government to restore tax exemptions.
José Enrique Villa Rivera, who took over as director of CONACYT in March, said in a meeting with parliamentarians in early April he would revive the tax exemption scheme under a new programme, without providing details of how it would work.
Avelino Cortizo, head of research, innovation and technological development at the Mexican Employers' Confederation (Coparmex), has joined the call by some G11 members to restore the programme, calling its cancellation an "irresponsible decision".
"Its disappearance puts Mexico at a disadvantage against other countries with fiscal instruments and promotion of technological development," says Cortizo.
Meanwhile Coparmex is working on setting up the country's first innovation network and communication platform, to bring together 3,500 companies with national and foreign research centres during its first phase.
"Innovation and technological development occur on a small scale, through boosting the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized companies," says Cortizo.
Innovation is in academia
But Mexico's innovation capital is concentrated in public universities, according to a study by the country's National Autonomous University (UNAM), which found that, for every scientific project developed by private companies, the public sector generates ten.
That is why academics, including Laclette and Menchaca-Rocha, asked the government to be cautious about restoring tax exemptions, saying that public support for companies to stimulate technology development should be based on links to public universities and research centres. "Companies that are better linked with universities, for example, should receive a bigger proportion of the support," says Laclette.
"We need to make the scientific system grow and boost technological development at the same time, but we can't produce technology at the expense of basic research," adds Rosaura Ruiz, ex-president of the Mexican School of Sciences, who believes technology development has been favoured over basic research.
Mexico's innovation capital is concentrated in public universities such as the National Autonomous University
Fighting for the science budget
Lack of public investment is also partly to blame for the country's poor performance in S&T. In the last eight years the public sector spent between 0.3 and 0.4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) on S&T — less than half of the one per cent recommended by the OECD and stipulated by a Mexican S&T law passed in 2002.
In the run-up to last year's budget in November, the Vincula group demanded that S&T should receive at least 0.5 per cent of GDP instead of the 0.34 per cent that the government was proposing. But Congress passed the budget almost without changes, and approved US$3.9 billion (0.34 per cent of GDP) for 2011, according to an analysis by Hector Ramírez, an economist at UNAM.
Some parliamentarians think 0.5 per cent could easily be achieved.
"With all the money we spend on national security, the fight against poverty … if we take out of that a very small amount we can have that money without having anybody starving in this country," said parliamentarian Alejandro Bahena during a meeting with the G11.
"There is always goodwill for science and technology, at least at the level of political discourse," says Javier Castell, co-ordinator of the Senatorial Science and Technology Commission at the Mexican congress. "The problem is that it is not expressed in changes in the budget. They are not interested enough in the subject."
The G11 issued a statement after the budget, saying: "The role of parliament in the final drafting of the budget for science, technology and innovation was disappointing because a system of quotas and political interests prevailed, as well as a short-term vision over the common good and interests of Mexico."
Ruiz, who now directs UNAM's science faculty, supports the idea of setting up a new ministry of higher education, science and technology to boost the budget.
"This would give higher status to the subject and would also facilitate a less centralised science budget," says Ruiz, who points out it would mean there would finally be state-level science and technology policies as well as national ones.
Cecilia Rosen is a science journalist based in Mexico. She completed an MSc in science communication at Imperial College London and lives in Mexico City.