Hundreds of National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) scholarship holders are facing uncertainty. For some, scholarships end this month and they see no possibility of renewal. The pandemic has affected scientific work as research centers and universities closed their doors due to Covid-19.
Scholars undertaking postdoctoral research in Europe and the United States speak with Tec Review about the consequences of the pandemic.
“I had a large experiment backlog. One of these experiments has a problem in Mexico because there was a incentive to set up a synchrotron in Hidalgo. Apparently, it’s just not going to be carried out,” laments Abigaíl in Barcelona.
The geoscientist, a specialist in nanoscale minerology, needs to use highly specialized equipment as part of her postdoctoral work. Unlike people who can work from home, Abigail’s work was interrupted a result of the pandemic.
That is not the only difficulty that Conacyt scholarship recipients face. When Pedro, who holds a PhD in chemistry, returned to laboratory work, he came across equipment that no longer worked.
“They told suddenly us ‘let’s go, stop everything, we don’t know when we’re going to come back.’ This meant that the necessary conditions to keep the equipment in good condition were not maintained. When we returned, we discovered that two machines were no longer working”, he says from Madrid.
They are X-ray spectroscopy machines that need to be turned off gradually. To keep working, even when not in use, this type of specialized machinery needs a constant flow of liquid nitrogen. These are the kind of difficulties Conacyt is ignoring, the post-docs note.
A series of problems
Six months have passed since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The global health emergency forced public places to close so as to prevent further infections. Universities and research centers around the world, where Conacyt scholars carry out their studies, were also closed.
The problem is more serious than anyone wants to admit, as limiting highly specialized training does not only mean a monetary loss for the country. Scholars’ time and effort is also limited.
“We have approached Conacyt, on several occasions, to inform them that the centers we are associated with abroad are still closed. This has had many effects on the progress of our research,” laments the MexiCiencia collective.
There are also no clear job opportunities when returning to Mexico. “Not enough effort has been made to repatriate scholars and create programs that allow them to work in their specialist areas,” says the Carlos Pellicer Cámara Association in an interview.
However, both scholarship recipient organizations report that Conacyt has ignored their communications. “Conacyt has not been flexible on any of the clauses in our contracts. They promised that, from June 1st, they would analyze the possible extension of scholarships to support the completion of our research projects,” adds MexiCiencia.
TecReview tried to reach María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, Director General of Conacyt, to learn more about the reason for the lack of support, but there was no response.
Scientists are crying out for help
Scientific study is a long process. For example, studying medicine begins with a six-year bachelor’s degree. If postgraduate and specialization courses are added afterward, training a researcher can take up to 15 years. It takes longer than the combined elementary and high school education of a student in Mexico.
However, after all the years of study, the cancellation of scholarships threatens the studies of at least 400 students in different areas.
“They have not only avoided responding to our demands but have also tried to break the agreements signed by their own agencies,” say the MexiCiencia scholarship recipients. The members of the group indicated that Conacyt had agreed to extend the deadline for submission of final research reports. That agreement is not being respected.
While the intention of the scholarship holders is to return with high levels of knowledge, and contribute to the country, the doors seem closed. This focuses attention on the lack of job opportunities in both science and education.
“We call on Conacyt, universities and research institutes, and the President, to take action on the matter. The Benito Juárez García Wellbeing Universities (UBBJ) could be an opportunity to offer job prospects to young researchers. We have a colleague who participated in the last call for teachers at UBBJ, in June, and they did not even respond to him,” shares the Carlos Pellicer Camara Association.
There is no future without science
Important Mexican scientists, interviewed by Tec Review, point out that science is essential for a better future. The physicist Miguel Alcubierre, the biologist Rodrigo Medellín, and the scientists working on a Covid-19 vaccine are proof of this.
What has differentiated Mexico from the great progress that other nations have achieved is the lack of investment in science.
“José Martí used to say that being educated is the only way to be free. Investing in education, research and development is never a mistake. Take, for example, the current health crisis. (Investing in science) would help us to have more doctors, virologists, and industrial engineers to develop treatments and equipment,” say the Carlos Pellicer Association scholars.
And they’re correct. In Japan, a country with a population similar to that of Mexico, investment in research and development is at least 2% of its gross domestic product. Meanwhile, Mexico allocates a maximum of 1% to this field, according to UNESCO figures.
What is the immediate future situation for scientists?
Their diverse knowledge and skills mean that scientists abroad can help the country with their knowledge.
“Historians can help us remember how we reacted to previous pandemics like H1N1 or HIV, so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Sociologists can help us understand why some people refuse to wear masks and don’t respect a healthy distance. (They can) design programs to convince them to do so. Urban planners can help us create transportation systems which reduce disease transmission,” the scholars explain.
For the MexiCiencia group, the warning is stark: without science we are doomed. “Investing too little, and investing badly, in science and education is a mistake that has cost thousands of lives and caused economic losses. This pandemic has made it clear that, in Mexico, a science council that does not contemplate inclusive and evolving scientific policies whilst looking to the future is doomed to failure and will lead to the country’s scientific suicide.”