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Mexican science suffers under debilitating budget cuts

Some researchers have turned to crowdfunding campaigns to pay for supplies and several scientific institutes are rationing electricity to save money.

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View of the oyamel firs forest, Mexico.

Mexico's budget cuts are affecting the country's researchers, including scientists working on improving forest conservation strategies.Credit: Enrique Castro/AFP/Getty

Austerity measures recently enacted by Mexico’s president are pushing the country’s scientific efforts — chronically underfunded for years — to a breaking point, according to researchers.

As part of broader cost-cutting measures aimed at freeing up money for poverty-alleviation programmes, in May, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador cut 30–50% of the money that federally funded institutions — including centres supported by Mexico’s main research funding agency, the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) — spend on travel, petrol, office supplies and salaries for temporary workers.

Since then, several research institutes say they have rationed electricity and sacked temporary workers. Scientists have cancelled conference travel and international projects, and others have relied on crowdfunding campaigns to pay for supplies. The monetary uncertainty has also deterred Mexican researchers working abroad from returning to take jobs at home.

The measures came on top of a roughly 12% cut to the 2019 budget for CONACYT that López Obrador’s administration enacted in December 2018. The move left the agency with 18.8 billion pesos (US$960 million).

“Mexican science has never been well funded,” says Antonio Lazcano, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. But the austerity measures, on top of the cuts to CONACYT’s budget, threaten to hamper the recruitment of early-career researchers, as well as the monitoring efforts for potential disasters such as earthquakes and epidemics, he says. Without advances in science and technology — which drive innovation and attract investors — the cuts could also set back economic growth in Mexico, he adds.

In June, Lazcano and 56 other Mexican scientists wrote an open letter to the government urging officials to reverse these recent funding cuts. As of 7 August, nearly 18,000 people had signed the letter online.

Ripple effects

Juan Martínez, an ecologist at the Institute of Ecology in Xalapa, says that the cuts enacted in May are pushing the institute to its limit. “We don’t have money to pay [for] electricity,” says Martínez, who has signed the open letter. To save energy, the institute has banned employees from charging their phones, turning on the air conditioning, working past 6 p.m. during the week or coming in over the weekend.

Other research centres, such as the Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE) in Tonantzintla, have also been hit hard. If INAOE doesn’t get more funds for lodging and transportation by November, the institute’s researchers won’t be able to travel to its observatory more than 2,000 kilometres away and observations will be disrupted, says Fabián Rosales, an astronomer at INAOE, which is funded by CONACYT.

The lack of travel funds has also forced Rosales to cancel trips to two conferences, as well as a research visit to Madrid for a project examining the abundance of chemical elements in nearby galaxies. He worries that if INAOE doesn’t get extra money by the end of the year, he’ll have to end his collaborations with scientists abroad.

Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a forest geneticist at the Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo, echoes this concern. He is part of a working group at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that’s developing better forest conservation and management strategies across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The Mexican National Forest Commission was supposed to pay for Sáenz-Romero and two of his colleagues to attend the working group’s next meeting in Idaho in October. But the commission won’t be able to fund the trip. Because the Mexican delegates can’t attend, the meeting has been cancelled, and it’s unclear when it will be rescheduled.

Getting creative

Despite these reports, CONACYT director Elena Álvarez-Buylla insists that the cuts enacted in May are aimed at reducing overspending and will not affect research projects at institutions funded by the agency. She says that the López Obrador administration has invested more money in science across all government agencies than the previous administration.

CONACYT is still in the process of spending its 2019 budget, Álvarez-Buylla says, and the agency plans to have allocated at least 1.6 billion pesos to basic science projects by the end of 2019. Decisions on new grants will be made at the end of the year, which means that researchers won’t get funds until 2020.

Lack of sufficient federal funding in Mexico predates the López Obrador administration. Soledad Funes, a molecular biologist at UNAM, says that over the past decade, calls for basic-science grant applications from CONACYT have been irregular. Funes is currently relying on a 250,000-peso grant provided by her university to continue her research. To save money, she avoids buying new equipment and doing experiments that require expensive tools or reagents. “We can still do science,” Funes says, “but it’s not the best science that we could do.”

Researchers at institutions that don’t provide such grants have turned elsewhere for money, including applying for funds offered by other countries. Still others have turned to the public for help. On 15 July, Enrique Espinosa, an immunologist at Mexico's National Institute for Respiratory Diseases in Mexico City, started a crowdfunding campaign to collect $10,000 to buy reagents, attend scientific conferences and support a graduate student until they receive a scholarship.

The mounting funding uncertainty has also discouraged Mexican researchers who are working abroad from returning to the country. Jorge Zavala, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin, rejected a well-paid academic position at INAOE last year because he wasn’t sure how long the money would last.

The position was part of a CONACYT programme covering salaries for young scientists working at Mexican institutions that couldn’t afford to pay their researchers. But Zavala wasn’t sure whether the programme would have continued under López Obrador’s administration.

Zavala plans to apply for academic positions in Europe or the United States in the near future. At some point, he says, “I might go back to Mexico, if things get better”.

Nature 572, 294-295 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02332-x

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 13 August 2019: This story has been updated with information about travel funds for Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a forest geneticist at the Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo, and the cancellation of a working group meeting that he was supposed to attend.

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