Unrest grows about treatment of researchers and cronyism

The victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the 2018 presidential elections raised numerous expectations among the Mexican scientific community.

Many hoped that, with the change of government, a series of practices that had proliferated in previous decades at the hands of the neoliberal economic project would be reversed: individualised monetary bonuses that promoted selfish competition among academics, generous public funding of supposed technological innovation projects that ended up in the hands of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and a chronic budget shortfall for universities and public research centres.

Many of those expectations were quickly dashed when MORENA, the new ruling party, launched a severe austerity policy that cut funding to almost all branches of the public sector (with a few exceptions such as the military and large extractive projects such as the purchase and construction of oil refineries).

Instead of the start of a golden age, researchers have found themselves in a new era of budget cuts for science.

Added to this disappointment have been the constant attacks by the president, who has declared in the press that Mexican scientists operate like a “mafia”, that those doing postgraduate studies abroad only acquire “bad habits” and that their work is not even of good quality.

The problems that this has produced have been increased by frequent disagreements between various members of the scientific community and María Elena Álvarez Buylla, the new head of the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), the main scientific funding agency.

These have been fed by misunderstandings, the constant bickering and the struggle to influence the direction of science policy. CONACYT, a federal government agency which in the past was rarely talked about in the press, has become a recurring news item in national newspapers.

Of the various conflicts in which CONACYT and its director have been involved recently, there are three that stand out in particular: 1) conflicts with members of a programme called Cátedras Conacyt; 2) legal disputes with private university professors whom CONACYT intends to exclude from the financial support they receive from the National System of Researchers (SNI); 3) the controversial admission of the attorney general of the republic to the highest level of the SNI.

Early career researchers

The Cátedras Conacyt was a programme that was created by the past federal government and was expected to hire about 3,000 young researchers to work on projects at public universities throughout the country (although their employer would be CONACYT).

In Mexico, more and more people have a doctorate (the product of decades of institutional efforts to promote the creation of more and better postgraduate programmes), but very few manage to get a full-time research job at a university or research centre. Being a part-time professor with a low salary and job insecurity is the likely fate of those who have newly acquired a doctorate.

Although the Cátedras Conacyt programme fell short of its initial ambitions and only hired some 1,500 researchers, it did represent one of the few realistic opportunities for people with a newly acquired PhD to get a full-time job.

However, since the MORENA government came to power, new positions have no longer been available on that programme, thus exacerbating the lack of opportunities for new generations of academics. In addition, many of the 1,500 were fired by CONACYT for unclear reasons.

An article recently published in Science drew attention to allegations of wrongful termination and discriminatory acts, such as terminating researchers’ contracts when they reported that they were pregnant.

Many of these dismissed researchers and others who fear they will suffer the same fate have organised to demand greater job security, the reintegration of the victims of unjust dismissals, the creation of new positions and the signing of a collective bargaining agreement through the newly created union, SIINTRACATEDRAS.

Treatment of private university researchers

The other recent scandals are related to one of CONACYT’s flagship agencies: the National System of Researchers (SNI). This system was created in the 1980s to mitigate the effects of the reduction in researchers’ salaries and to prevent brain drain. Today 35,000 researchers are members of the SNI and receive financial support. The amount they receive varies according to the level researchers reach in the SNI as a result of periodic evaluations.

Initially, only researchers from public universities could access the SNI, but this restriction was later removed and academics working in private universities were allowed to enter the system.

This changed abruptly in October 2020 when CONACYT announced to the rectors and provosts of several private universities that their SNI academics would no longer receive financial support.

Although that decision was temporarily suspended, it was ratified in April 2021 following the approval of several reforms to the SNI regulations. These regulations state that only those who “are attached to a public institution of higher education or public sector research centre in Mexico can receive financial support”.

Withdrawing financial support from SNI members who work in private universities has been viewed as discriminatory. On the one hand, the money from the SNI is received directly by academics, not by the institutions where they work. On the other hand, all applicants who enter or remain in the SNI are evaluated according to the same criteria and by the same evaluation commissions.

Dozens of universities and academics are suing to stop the application of the new regulation. At the beginning of June, a federal court granted a provisional suspension of the regulation to maintain the benefits of the SNI for affected researchers. While this is a victory for academics, it is likely just the beginning of a legal battle that could take years to resolve.

Political cronyism?

The latest case that has thrust CONACYT into the news concerns the recent appointment of the attorney general of the republic, Alejandro Gertz Manero, to the SNI. In the past, he was not allowed to join the SNI because the evaluation committees considered that his application lacked sufficient scientific and academic merit.

Although Gertz Manero was provost of a private university campus and has published some books since the 1960s – such as biographies of political figures – it is known that research has never been a priority for him.

After an 11-year legal dispute, Gertz Manero won the right to have his application re-evaluated when the federal government office in charge of preventing discrimination (CONAPRED) urged CONACYT to reconsider the case.

Director Álvarez Buylla appointed an ad hoc commission to re-evaluate Gertz Manero’s academic record and, to the surprise of virtually all scientists in the country, this time the prosecutor was not only accepted into the SNI but was awarded level three (the highest level). Reaching level three usually takes many years – sometimes decades – of hard work by researchers.

What many think is that the prosecutor’s entry into the SNI was the result of political cronyism. Such suspicions have been met with the most indignation since eliminating this type of illegitimate influence in favour of members of the political and economic elites was one of the most notable promises made by the new president of the republic. This seems a brazen example of it.

Dr Héctor Vera is a researcher at the Institute of Research into Universities and Education at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.