Crisis in Mexican Science
[MEXICO CITY] The Mexican government, led by President Vicente Fox, promised to invest 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) in science by the end of its term, as part of its 2001-2006 Special Science and Technology Programme. But in 2003, as the government enters its third year in power, investment in science and technology remains frozen at 0.42 per cent of GDP.
This figure has not varied over the past 20 years and during three governments. Many scientists who hoped for better conditions have decided to leave the country, or have sought funding by collaborating with colleagues abroad.
"It's always the same story; we've been waiting for the situation to change for the past 20 years and it never does – there is never any money," says René Drucker, coordinator of scientific research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which carries out approximately 50 per cent of research in the country. "There is no state policy. There are words and commitments in speeches, but in practice there is nothing."
According to figures released by the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) – the organisation that governs policy-making in Mexican science – investment in science in 2003 has amounted to little more than 28 billion pesos (US$2.5 billion), of which 80 per cent comes from public financing, while the remaining 20 per cent is from the private sector.
Additional investment of at least 13 billion pesos (US$1.1 billion dollars) every year would be required over the six-year term in order to reach the figures promised by the government. This is equivalent to an increase of almost 50 per cent a year based on the budget for 2000.
Jaime Parada Ávila, director of CONACYT, points out that both federal government investments and the budget granted to the council were increased by 11 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively, for this year – insufficient to reach the government's targets. Parada blames the government’s failure to fulfill the goals set for science and technology on the lack of tax income. "The 2003 investment is inadequate for the country’s needs," he says. "At least three times this amount should be invested. To reach the goal of 1 per cent of GDP, spending would have to be increased to 70 billion pesos (US$6.4 billion dollars)".
Parada stresses that, with the resources available, it is impossible to meet some targets, such as boosting the number of researchers and PhD students. This is because the goals were based on the assumption that the government would receive more income from taxes.
José Antonio de la Peña, president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences (AMC), says that "there is no chance of channelling 1 per cent of GDP into science and technology by the end of the six-year term. Reversing [current] low [levels of] investment will be very difficult.”
De la Peña feels that the situation has gone backwards over the last two years due to a lack of resources to support research projects, train new scientists and employ researchers. "Another year’s setback will compound on that of previous years and we will soon be feeling the effects," he says.
In addition, Mexico is not internationally competitive, as shown by its last-place ranking among the members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Mexico has the lowest ranking in the OECD in terms of investment in science and technology, with only 0.42 per cent of GDP. It is surpassed by Turkey (0.63 per cent), Greece (0.67 per cent), and the Slovac Republic (0.69 per cent). The average investment in science and technology in the Latin American region is 0.6 per cent of GDP. Mexico has one of the lowest levels of investment in science and technology in the region, according to OECD figures
Furthermore, Mexico falls well behind the level of investment made by countries such as Finland, which injects 3.37 per cent of its GDP into science and technology, Japan (2.98 per cent), and the United States (2.70 per cent).
"A policy has not been developed to foster scientific activity," says Drucker. "The government does not think that it's important and tends to ignore it in the event of budget emergencies. As long as this idea persists, we will continue to be an underdeveloped country and will certainly trail behind the OECD countries."
Juan Ramón de la Fuente, vice-chancellor of UNAM, strongly criticises the government’s scientific policy, and points out that Mexican science has been stagnating for at least two decades.
"The real problem with science in our country is that no state interest or policy has been defined," says De la Fuente. "There appears to be no long-term planning in the area, despite the brain drain and the crisis threatening science in Mexico."
De la Fuente points out that current policies are based on a short-term outlook, and a more thorough analysis has yet to take place. "Policies have not been well thought through."
For more than 20 years, many scientists had harboured the hope that 'one day' science would occupy a fundamental place in state policy, even more so after Vicente Fox's defeat of the longstanding Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). However, it appears that he has not come through with the promised changes he repeated so often during his election campaign.
"There has been a change in the government, but it has been a change for the worse," says Drucker. "Scientists are already losing hope."