Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
MEXICO CITY—Mexican scientists clad in lab coats and carrying handmade signs gathered here yesterday outside the Chamber of Deputies to protest a bill that would cut a lifeline for many Mexican research centers. The bill, which appears likely to pass, would terminate 109 trust funds run by public research centers and government institutes, one-third of them devoted to science and technology. The government plans to divert the roughly 68 billion pesos ($3 billion) in funds to help cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s an attack against scientific research,” says political scientist Lorena Ruano from the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), who handed deputies about to debate the bill a letter with almost 30,000 signatures. Antonio Lazcano, an evolutionary biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, University City, calls the plan “a brutal blow” and the worst hit to Mexican science in 50 years.
Past administrations created the trust funds as a financial mechanism to ensure sustained funding for specific programs—something annual government budgets at the whim of politicians can’t guarantee. The funds support everything from student scholarships and emergency maintenance of equipment to major research projects at dozens of government centers. Others help pay for biosecurity, biotechnology, fighting climate change, and disaster relief. Money for some of the trust funds comes not only from the federal government, but also from international grants, donations, and the institutes’ profits.
In April, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed the termination of public trust funds to liberate resources for fighting the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. In May, following a public discussion that involved scientists, deputies issued a statement calling for careful analysis to prevent the funds’ elimination from threatening scientific and technological development.
But in a reversal, deputy Mario Martín Delgado Carrillo of Morena—the leftist party founded by López Obrador—began to push the bill on 29 September and proposed increasing the number of funds to be eliminated from 55 in the initial bill to 109. Ending the funds doesn’t mean the money disappears, he claims; instead, it is a reorganization and a review “of every peso” in spending.
The bill’s supporters say it seeks to do away with “unnecessary expenses” as well as the “opacity” of the trusts’ management. But critics say the funds that support science are heavily audited and not mishandled. “There’s no opacity,” Ruano says. “That’s a lie.” And they are skeptical about a promise that nongovernmental contributions to the funds will be returned to research centers. Even if they are, institutions will lose a mechanism to manage their own funds. “They are not only taking our resources, they are taking our autonomy,” Ruano says.
Trust funds represent a significant part of many institutions’ modest annual budgets—10% to 15% in the case of CIDE, for example. For the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (Cinvestav), a leading public research institute, its 54 million peso trust fund is vital, says Cinvestav breast cancer researcher María del Carmen Domínguez Robles. The institute has more than 60 research projects related to COVID-19, including a candidate vaccine. “Thanks to this, they will be halted,” she predicts.
Twenty-six of the funds support research centers within the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt), Mexico’s main science funding agency. The centers’ directors have been vocal about the threat posed by the bill, but higher officials at Conacyt, who have often clashed with the scientific community, have remained silent. “They haven’t even opened their mouths,” says economist Gabriela Dutrénit Bielous of the Metropolitan Autonomous University, Xochimilco, who’s also a spokesperson for ProCienciaMx, a network of scientists seeking to improve Mexico’s science policy.
The cut could also damage international collaborations, according to an open letter from Cinvestav researchers. Trust funds allow institutes to receive and manage international grants, and proponents of the bill have not offered an alternate solution, leaving scientists wondering where the grant money will go.
It’s as if we were going back 20, 40 years.”
In recent days, at least 12 universities, public research centers, academies, and scientific societies have issued statements urging deputies to vote against the bill, which will prove “disastrous for the scientific development of the country,” according to a ProCienciaMx statement.
But after deputies discussed the bill yesterday afternoon, votes in favor began to pile up. Opponents left the chamber in the evening in a tactical move, forcing the vote to be halted for lack of a quorum. Deputies are expected to vote again next Tuesday; they could still salvage some of the trust funds in amendments to the bill before the vote. If passed, the bill will be sent to the Senate, where the government coalition’s comfortable majority makes approval likely.
Lópz Obrador has clashed with the scientific community on multiple occasions. “He has always referred to scientists as if we were a privileged group that lives in the comfort of our cubicles, enjoying advantages and far away from reality,” Lazcano says. The elimination of the trust funds is just the latest sign the administration is reversing gains the scientific community has made, Domínguez Robles says: “It’s as if we were going back 20, 40 years.”