nueva Ley General de Ciencia
A new General Science Act must be approved in Mexico, but researchers ask that the search for knowledge not be limited. (Photo: iStock)

But, four months away from the deadline, the bill which the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) has been working on still has not been seen.

This has generated uncertainty in the Mexican scientific community, who accuse Conacyt of actively preventing their participation in the writing of the document.

What do they want? It shouldn’t be a centralist law; lines of research shouldn’t be limited; and resources should be spent across fiscal years.

The new General Science Act

Recent reforms to Article 3 of the Constitution included the right of every person to enjoy the benefits of scientific developments, as well as technological innovation. For this reason, the state now has responsibility for supporting research in these fields and guaranteeing full access to the scientific information that is developed through said research.

Hence the need to have a General Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Act and thereby repeal the Federal Science and Technology Act in force since 2002.

Work began on it in 2019, and different forums were held to learn about the concerns of the scientific community. However, the process was put on hold due to the health crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

So, the bill that the federal authorities will present for discussion by the Senate of the Republic is still unseen.

“Nobody that I know within the scientific community -and that includes academia and societies- has even seen a proposal of what the guiding elements would be,” lamented Dr. David Romero, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and member of the ProCienciaMx network.

“We insist on the need for open debate. No law should be passed without hearing different opinions. It’s not a matter of majorities,” he argued.

Their uncertainty and fear that the proposals being discussed include aspects that mean setbacks for the area are not in vain.

Via email

In February 2019, Morena Senator Ana Lilia Rivera presented an initiative for the creation of a Humanities, Sciences and Technologies Act, which promoted the transformation of Conacyt into a National Council of Humanities, Sciences and Technologies.

It was a document which not only centralized the country’s scientific research, but also limited the fields in which it could be undertaken.

“It must be recognized that Mexico is a federal country. For that reason, not only to the central government, but also state and municipal governments must be allowed to carry out a uniform and balanced development of science across the country, in addition to including the participation of the scientists themselves, who are the ones who do the actual work,” added Romero.

“From my point of view, there should be distributed governance, in which the voices of each of the sectors involved are heard; this is about developing a balanced policy.”

The UNAM has responded to calls by federal authorities, in this case from Conacyt, to give its opinion and suggestions about topics that the General Science Act should include, but there is uncertainty about how these proposals will be included within the final document.

“The UNAM has shared opinions that should be in the law. It should not just be a discussion within the UNAM but rather the result of very broad analyses by many universities and across a wide range of sectors. This should start with the document that was prepared two years ago and delivered, at the time, to the then president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in August 2018. (But) there has been no feedback. Conacyt has said that it has received a certain number of proposals, but it has not said how they will be incorporated,” stated William Lee Alardín, Coordinator of Scientific Research at the UNAM, in an interview.

Recently -both researchers agreed- they have learned of consultations that Conacyt has been undertaking via email with some members of the scientific community. However, the question of how they will be incorporated into the discussion and the document still remains.

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Research should not be limited

Science cannot be not restricted; it cuts across and affects the whole of society. Thus, the possibility of limiting or reducing lines of research is one of the major concerns within the Mexican research community.

For this reason, in the General Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Act, the most important thing is that space is dedicated to freedom to research, freedom to teach, freedom of thought, and a completely free exchange of proposals.

“Research should not be limited. If you find that something represents a risk, then you will be able to limit the applications of that knowledge,” emphasized Lee Alardín.

In the proposal published in February 2019 by Senator Ana Lilia Rivera -which was withdrawn- it was understood that some research could represent a risk.

“But you don’t know what represents a risk and what doesn’t if you don’t know what the research is about,” said the UNAM’s Scientific Research Coordinator.

Furthermore, if lines of research are limited, knowledge is most likely to be lost because it will not be known in which areas multi-disciplinary knowledge could be used.

Shot in the foot

“The techniques that are being used to diagnose Covid-19 with lung scanner images -when you have a tomography-, are the same techniques used for pattern recognition in astronomy and geography. So, if you put a limit on this research and say that you are not going to finance mathematics or astronomy because it is very abstract, and no one is going to use it, you are shooting yourself in the foot because the techniques you develop for that could help you with something else,” stressed the university researcher.

At the same time, considering the constitutional right of access scientific knowledge, any provision that is included in the new law must be coupled with education policy since, “it cannot be claimed that knowledge serves the population if it is disconnected from them,” said Lee Alardín.

Susana Lizano, president of the Mexican Academy of Science (AMC), rejected the possibility of narrowing down or limiting fields of scientific research.

“It would be very bad for science to be censored; that is not correct (…). The pursuit of knowledge should not be limited; if it is limited we are condemned to end up without flights, cell phones, everything that corresponds to modern life,” she pointed out.

Both government and society must recognize that the generation of knowledge, and its application, are strategic for the development of the country in terms of social, economic and welfare strategy.

Budget sufficiency

For decades, no more than 0.5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Mexico has been invested in science, although the federal Science and Technology Law -still in force- states that 1% must be invested each year.

In the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average is 2.4% of their GDP.

Faced with this scenario, the scientific community also spoke out to demand that the development of knowledge and scientific research is planned over long periods and is not governed by fiscal years as this limits its continuity.

“You have to uncouple, try to uncouple, the timeline for scientific development and planning from government cycles. This is a state responsibility, not a governmental one. It has to go beyond just one administration,” proposed the UNAM’s Scientific Research Coordinator.

The fight against ignorance

Mexico is one of the 10 largest economies in the world, but it does not have the scientific infrastructure that its global position and its land mass suggest it should.

For this reason, the Mexican Academy of Science (AMC), stressed that large-scale scientific infrastructure projects can, and should, serve as catalysts for the generation of geographic and thematic development.

“These promote scientific and technological vocations, generating both social impact and secondary economic spillover. In addition, they contribute to the training of qualified personnel, taking advantage of and developing established capacities and Mexico’s national and international projection,” stated the AMC in the proposal of key points which the General Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Act should contain.

In an interview for Tec Review, the head of the AMC, Dr. Susana Lizano, said that the appropriation of science contributes “to the fight against ignorance and creates independent thinking, by avoiding servitude, fanaticism, and prejudice.”

Enough time

Like the ProCienciaMx Network and the UNAM, the Mexican Academy of Science has sent its proposals and general thoughts on what the General Science, Technology and Innovation Act should include to Conacyt, but to date they have not received any feedback either.

Dr. Julia Tagüeña, researcher and former coordinator of the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum (FCCyT), was happy that there have been many meetings -convened at the initiative of the scientific community- and trusted that when Conacyt makes its proposal known, legislators will give time for the scientific community to comment on the document.

“The first thing we must do is to make sure that it has the right format to become a general act and, of course, what I would hope is that a broad, diverse and rich system is created which allows the voices of the scientific, technological and innovation community to be heard within a framework of research freedom and social responsibility,” shared the researcher.

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