Fears as Mexican ministry seeks greater control of research funds

Government claims it is seeking to root out corruption and free up extra money for Covid-19 measures

October 11, 2020
Police and city government workers stand at a pedestrian control that limits the access in groups of 20 people to enter downtown Mexico City
Source: Getty

Academics in Mexico have said that government plans to take greater control of research funding risk a “severe blow” to science in the country.

A bill that has passed through the lower house of Congress would eliminate 109 “trust funds” that are set up to support and provide, free of political interference, long-term stability to a range of causes, from research and the arts to disaster relief and human rights protections for journalists.

The funds identified for closure are valued at around 68 billion pesos (£2.5 billion), about a third of which is dedicated to science and research. The Mexican government has argued that allowing the Interior Ministry to take control of the funds would permit it to divert money to Covid-19 measures while also rooting out “corruption” within the funds.

However, campaigners, backed by the Mexican Academy of Sciences, have warned that eliminating “a fundamental pillar for the maintenance of infrastructure, equipment and information technologies of academic institutions of excellence…would be a severe blow to science and technology in Mexico when it is more needed than ever”.

Congress’ upper house was due to vote this month on the future of the trusts, which include the scientific research and technological development funds of the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt).

“The federal government is looking for sources of extra cash, and the trust funds were an easy target,” said Beatriz Rumbos, dean of the Division of Actuarial Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics at the Instituto Tecnológico Autonomo de México (ITAM).

The trusts had provided long-term support and stability for research projects, Professor Rumbos explained. While funds distributed directly from the government’s budget had to be spent within a year, the money in the trusts could be used over longer periods, which was crucial for multi-year research projects.

“This is clearly necessary for many scientific projects but also for keeping the arts going, and having a trust fund for attending natural disasters seems to me like a no-brainer – but go figure,” Professor Rumbos said.

Mexico’s president and its finance minister have said they are acting to “eradicate corruption within some of the funds, but clearly you don’t need to literally destroy the funds in order to ‘repair’ them”, she continued.

Lorena Ruano Gómez, professor of international relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) and one of the leaders of the campaign against the bill, said the idea that the funds were easily misused was misleading, particularly as recent reforms had made them more transparent. The plans, she went on, were “an attempt by the government to control the direction of science”.

“We are very angry. We rely on these funds for our research,” she said. Professor Ruano added that her institution had depended on the funds throughout the pandemic when other sources, including direct government grants, had dried up.

She explained that the research funding that CIDE and other research centres received from the European Commission, the UK and the World Bank were held in these trust funds. While the government has said that it would return the privately won funds to institutions, it is not clear how or how easy it will be to use them because of Mexico’s fiscal rules, she said.

“We are chronically underfunded already,” Professor Ruano said. “We use these trusts for matched funding to win grants from Europe, but if they are gone, we won’t be able to.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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