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Mexico recently hosted the International Conference on Financing for Development, which saw leaders from all over the world gather in Monterrey to discuss the need for rich countries to “help” poorer nations.

As a result of the conference, the countries that were represented agreed to devote a minimum percentage of their gross domestic product to combating poverty.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, however, was disdainful of this “assistance”. The wealth of rich countries, he says, was built by plundering the natural resources of poor countries, and international financial institutions have been strengthened with the interest payments on debt — the very debt that causes people to starve to death.

Handouts are not the answer to any nation’s problems. Rather, what is needed is a government-supported productive base; a well-run health system that makes research a priority; and a strong national industry that can create jobs and stimulate technological development.

To achieve this, education, science and technology must be made a top priority.

But these subjects did not even appear on the Monterrey agenda. It is extremely worrying that a conference on development did not even mention the trigger for economic development — science and technology. Neither did it mention education as the foundation of both activities.

Science and technology alone cannot rid the world of hunger and poverty. Economics and politics also play a part. But without science and technology, a real step forward — and in the long term, economic development — is not possible. Men and women without education are condemned to a form of slavery.

Mexico needs policies for science and technology that recognise the value of scientific research as a way of generating knowledge, and that promote research as a way of solving society’s problems.

But this type of policy will only be successful if it takes researchers’ views into account. To leave researchers out is to condemn such policies to failure. It would be like leaving doctors out of the health ministry, or trying to build a road without consulting engineers.

If science and technology policies are developed without involving researchers, Mexican science will be reduced to a mere ‘assembly plant’, the kind of scientific system that:
  1. lacks a sense of purpose, and is guided by research carried out abroad

  2. is evaluated only on the basis of parameters used in other countries

  3. achieves nothing more than the publication of research papers that support findings made in other countries

  4. cannot increase the size of its human resource base with access to modern technologies

  5. does not create technology, or generate new knowledge

  6. relies entirely on technology produced in other countries

  7. has a vertical structure, with no space for the creativity of young people or women, and denigrates the daily tasks of its own researchers.

  8. with every change of government, partially destroys what went before, ignoring any achievements and abandoning relevant projects

  9. lacks sufficient resources to influence society

  10. lacks the capacity to resolve the problems of society

  11. in international scientific collaborations, its contribution is limited to supplying raw materials for experiments — for example biological specimens — without participating in the design, process and discussion of the projects.
Mexican science already possesses many of these characteristics. What the country now needs are science and technology policies that encourage original and innovative science, and that promote the kinds of technology that can help the nation to develop. We need to strengthen our research institutions and get Mexican researchers involved in policy.

Mexico also needs new science and technology institutions to allow the country to increase its ratio of only eight researchers for every 100,000 Mexicans. It’s getting late in the day to correct our path.

Esther Orozco is a researcher at the Departamento de Patología Experimental del Cinvestav-IPN, Mexico, and is the winner of the Louis Pasteur prize.

This is an edited and translated version of an article that originally appeared in Lunes en la Ciencia.