Fearful academics belie funding body's positive spin

September 16, 2005

The director of the agency that distributes funding for Mexico's research has resigned weeks after a survey found that wrangling over resources was responsible for low morale among academics.

Jaime Parada Avila, director of the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt), stepped down despite his earlier denials of a funding crisis and claims of widespread approval for his agency's performance.

His replacement is Gustavo Chapela, a University College London graduate.

The Government has failed to meet a goal of investing 1 per cent of gross domestic product in science. Conacyt has also faced criticism from the director of the National Polytechnic Institute for cutting at least 100 places from one programme and turning away more than 300 applicants just as the new term started.

Job security is another issue. At the Autonomous University of Mexico (Unam), almost 70 per cent of staff are on short-term contracts. The Mexican Academy of Sciences is also concerned about dismissals of long-serving staff.

In one case, Jaime Lagunez-Otero, a highly regarded biologist and computing expert who had worked at Unam's chemistry institute for 12 years, was locked out of his office in April last year. The university denied him access to his research group's work and refused to explain his dismissal.

"I have never received a written explanation," said Dr Lagunez-Otero, a member of the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, a group of academics recognised for their contribution to research. He believes that the move may be linked to his involvement with human rights campaigns.

"Not only have I lost my job, but we lost a lot of important work. We are close to patenting results that could lead to the development of therapies for Aids and cancer."

Scientists including Cambridge University academic Sir Andrew Huxley have called for the reinstatement of another abruptly dismissed scientist, Javier Alvarez-Leefmans of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.

Dr Alvrez-Leefmans was told that a project he was involved in with a USuniversity was incompatible with his institutional commitments. However, he claims political motives.

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