In the Paths to Science Policy series, we talk to individuals who have a passion for science policy and are active in advocacy through their various roles and careers. The series aims to inform and guide early career scientists interested in science policy. This series is brought to you by the GSA Early Career Scientist Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee.
Today, as part of the ECLP Policy and Advocacy Interview Series, I’m with Manuel Elias-Gutierrez, a senior researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your career path and your current work?
I started in the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1980 as an assistant, worked there for 18 years, and became a full professor. At some point, I was invited to work on sabbatical leave here in Chetumal for six months, but six months turned into several years. Doing science here felt like another dimension, far away from the distractions of excessive bureaucracy known to academia. When my wife and I moved our labs here, people said it would be a career-ending mistake, but here we are years later and still going strong. Here, I have been able to develop all my research in freshwater biodiversity. Mexico is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and we are applying modern techniques, such as DNA barcoding, to understand the ecology and diversity of freshwater zooplankton and fish species like never before.
How has public funding for science changed in Mexico in the last few years?
Let’s start from the beginning. In the 1980’s, the government realized there was a big “brain drain” happening, where most scientists were leaving the country to work overseas. They then started a fellowship known as the National Investigator System, popularly known as SNI. Nowadays, being part of the SNI is a must for any researcher in Mexico; for many, it can account for half of their income. In order to keep our SNI fellowship, we have periodic evaluations. Depending on the level, you were evaluated every three to five years. The evaluations are a mixture of the peer-review and tenure-review systems: if you are not producing papers, not graduating students, or grants keep being rejected, you can be turned away from the SNI and lose that economical supplement. Imagine suddenly losing half of your income! On the other hand, this system is what makes science in Mexico so productive. The scientific community is small; there are only about 41,000 members of the SNI, but because of the constant evaluations, we are a very active community with constant publications. It is basically the same publish-or-perish mentality as in the US or Europe. You must be productive, or you are downgraded or expelled from the SNI.
Besides the SNI fellowship, most researchers keep their labs running through grants from the National Council for Humanities, Science, and Technology. Funding from the council has been traditionally stable. I got my first grant in 1990 and continued with granted projects every year until 2017. But since 2017, things have changed drastically. Cuts to science funding started during the previous president of Mexico, and although we thought things would change under the current president, we are still gravely suffering from deep cuts to our funding. The national council and other government agencies started funding fewer grants, and the few proposals that are accepted are only funded partially, at 70 percent of what is asked in most cases. Funding has never been as good as in the US or elsewhere, but at least it was consistent. Most labs were able to build a good infrastructure before the deep funding cuts happened. It is a very complicated situation right now. I can only speak from personal experience, but I know that many colleagues are in the same boat. We have PCR and other machines that have been running for more than 10 years, but since we do not have enough funds, we end up paying for repairs from our own pockets in several cases. And it’s not only repairs. Lately, we have had to use our personal funds to pay for publication fees and travel expenditures for conferences and meetings. Many even use their own money to pay for gasoline and pickup trucks for research field trips. And insecurity in the country has increased: in the past, we never had an issue. Recently, several colleagues were assaulted on a sampling trip. With the new rules, it’s also harder to get funding from exterior entities for trips and collaborations. It is so complicated now that the number of international collaborations I had has been severely impacted.
Even when you secure funding from outside sources, the government can also interfere with that. For example, a couple of years ago, we got a grant from the United Nations, but we were not able to use it completely. When we received any external funding, we were forced to deposit it in a centralized institutional trust. With those funds, we started the construction of a new room for our labs, but then the government said all institutional trusts would be over, so everything was stopped. Because of the new rules, we cannot use any non-government funding for equipment, like PCR machines or even computers; this “work” computer I am using to talk to you was bought with my personal money. Things were not perfect before, but they have not gotten better either.
Is there a concrete reason behind these changes? The Mexican government seems to constantly accuse academics of only doing “neoliberal” science. What is meant by using this economic term in the context of science, or is it just being used as an excuse?
There does not seem to be convincing logic behind it. One of the strongest proposals from the new government was to save money, which they have accomplished in other areas. But they have tried to apply the same logic to scientific funding. I am not entirely sure why they keep using the term “neoliberal science.” I believe they are referring to the accusations that, during the previous government, the Council of Science was giving too much money to enterprises and private companies. I have not seen the financial documents myself, but it is agreed upon by many colleagues that the Council was only using six percent of its funding for these private companies. I am not sure if you can really say that it is an excuse, but whatever has fueled these changes has led to surprising alterations to how we do science. For example, even if you get a grant rejected, you could request the peer-reviewed evaluation, which I have done in the past. But for one of my latest rejections, I was not given a peer-reviewed evaluation. Out of the whole country, less than 50 grants for a particular call were being funded that year. There has been an extreme cut to scientific funding, which is extremely sad.
Mexico is one of the top five most biodiverse countries in the world. We used to have a special government entity dedicated to supporting biodiversity, the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity. It was even well-regarded by the international community, but it has been reduced to almost nothing. For example, lots of colleagues have voiced concerns for biodiversity regarding the “Maya Train,” a new government project that runs through the Mexican South. But the government has disregarded those concerns and avoids doing any independent risk-assessment projects that I am aware of. Personally, I know those areas have very fragile ecosystems. In one of my projects, we are currently working on how a tropical storm turned Lake Bacalar—the most beautiful lake in the world in my opinion—from blue to a brownish color that could lead to an ecological collapse in the area. The train might greatly increase the transportation efficiency and the economy in the south, but no studies have been made about the tourist impact on these extremely fragile ecosystems, some that even contain hidden biodiversity. Sadly, science seems to have become a low-importance, secondary-level issue in Mexico. Nevertheless, my colleagues and I concentrate on our work and our science, and we will always keep working to move our projects forward. We do not let ourselves be defeated by external factors.
In previous interviews and articles about this topic, you seem concerned about academic freedom and the future of science in Mexico. Are you still worried? What does the future hold for Mexican principal investigators and graduate students?
There is currently a discussion in the Mexican Congress regarding a new law on humanities, sciences, technologies, and innovation. It is basically trying to centralize all science in Mexico. Many colleagues fear it will turn into an excuse for the government to make unilateral decisions regarding science policy. The new law proposes government officials across several agencies will be responsible for advising the national council about the decisions on science. No representative from the scientific community is being considered. Right now, we still have academic freedom, but lots of colleagues and early career scientists feel too much uncertainty for the future. Lots of academics are not sure about their job stability anymore. People with families and kids are not sure whether they should be planning to leave soon. I talked with several of them before this interview, and the consensus was to underline how much uncertainty we are dealing with here in Mexico.
Regarding the students, it boils down to the same: the future is too uncertain to take on such long commitments as a PhD or a long-term project. In the last years, I have had a hard time getting students to come here, and now I know for a fact that our program has decreased its class size almost by half since the pandemic because students are not trusting the future of science in Mexico as much now. On a positive note, I see the younger generation of students as being more willing to collaborate with each other and organize. I grew up and made my career with the old system, where individuality and small-sized collaborations were praised. We have a hard time coming together against all this uncertainty, but early career scientists now are organizing, so there is hope in the future. Yet, it is not easy to publicly voice our concerns. The rules can be changed at any time and make our job as researchers harder. For example, a few years ago, a new rule came into effect that for researchers to leave the country (even for a conference), they needed to ask permission from the government first. That only changed after a big scandal broke out in the local newspapers.
Sometimes not even scandals are enough. Coming back to the topic of the “Maya Train,” lots of scientists voiced concerns about the damage this will do to the local flora and fauna, and the national council even commissioned a report. Yet, they did not like the findings, so they decided not to promote it. It was eventually published, but no government agency was allowed to participate on the report and its publication had to be privately funded; the findings were effectively censored. In my whole academic life, I have never seen such an attitude from our authorities. It deeply shocked me. All my life I have been away from politics. I have tried to avoid it and concentrate on my research. I cannot stay silent anymore. For the future of Mexican science and the future of all early career scientists, we must speak up. All that I have talked about today is based on my personal experience. These are the things we are currently dealing with as Mexican scientists. Funding is scarcer than ever, and I am concerned Mexico will go into another large brain drain. I hope our authorities will see the light and understand our true needs as researchers. Seeing young scientists still interested in this career and fighting for academic freedom in Mexico and abroad keeps my hopes high; I certainly believe we will overcome these hurdles and Mexican science will continue!