Future Tense

Mexico’s Scientific Community Is Facing Unprecedented Threats From the Government

Handcuffs linked around a microscope and a beaker with green liquid in it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by RTimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus, tarasov_vl/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and neskez/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On Sept. 20, journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio reported in the newspaper Eje Central that Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero was planning to issue arrest warrants for 31 Mexican scientists. He alleged that they had stolen $12.2 million destined for the scientific advancement of the country.

But the scientists remain free. This is the second time that Gertz tried to issue the warrants, and the second time that a federal judge denied the request, much to the relief of Mexico’s scientific establishment. The scientists and their supporters are worried that the prosecutor’s office plans to arrest the 31 under charges typically reserved for narcotics traffickers. If that happens, they could end up in a maximum-security prison where some of the most dangerous criminals are spending time, without the opportunity to get bail before trial. The 31 scientists say that there has been no crime—and that the Mexican government is instead trying to send a message to those who would dare question its scientific policy decisions. Nonetheless, as of Oct. 5 some of the accused scientists have been summoned by the general prosecutor of the republic to make their statement on the charges.

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To understand what’s happening here, we have to return to 2019, when the government administration of the newly elected president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, AMLO, took charge. At the time, as a part of a so-called “austerity plan” intended to reallocate resources to the people and not the institutions, the government started cutting back budgets—particularly for funding scientific research.

Mexico has a very particular system for funding scientific research and setting priorities. At its center is the National Council of Science and Technology (known as CONACYT for its initials in Spanish). For years, CONACYT oversaw designing and executing public policies in science across the country, but it did so with the help of 10 other institutions, such as the Mexican Academy of Sciences. These organizations served as a bridge between CONACYT and the scientific community. They organized the scientific community to offer advice on science and technology and coordinated programs like national science prizes or scientific policy evaluations. CONACYT is in charge of managing these institutions’ operational funds.

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But in early 2019, AMLO appointed Elena Álvarez Buylla director of CONACYT. Soon after, the Senate presented a proposal to modify the Science and Technology Law, which spells out the federal government’s obligations to support the scientific and technological development of the country. Under this proposal, CONACYT would become the only institution in charge of making decisions regarding the country’s science and technology system and mediating between the government and the scientific community. The other organizations that had long been involved would be shut down—and they weren’t consulted on the proposal, much to their dismay.

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CONACYT denied its involvement with that proposal, though that seems a little suspicious, given that it issued a very similar one later that year. Under both proposals—neither of which has yet been approved—most of the decisions regarding the science and technology system would fall on CONACYT’s shoulders.

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Scientists are worried that centralizing science policy decision making around just one institution would harm democracy and that CONACYT didn’t have the necessary resources to do the work solo. Worse, CONACYT started cutting back the organizations’ budgets even before the new law was approved.

Among these institutions was the Scientific and Technological Advisory Forum. (Disclosure: I worked there for a time as a reporter.) The forum is a civil association in charge of advising the federal government on science and technology policy. In 2019, the forum spoke up about the new approach that the country was taking toward science investment. It argued against the reduction of funding overall for science due to the new austerity measures that the government was implementing. It also advocated for the scientific community to be taken into account in the country’s science policy decisions, which CONACYT stopped doing under Buylla’s charge.

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In July 2019, CONACYT issued a press release ordering the forum to “comply with the law and act in congruence with the austerity measures” that the government was taking, which meant accepting the budget cutback. CONACYT also refused to give the forum the funds to continue its operations––it recently received a final payment of $821,000 for the first half of the year. But the forum was legally entitled to those funds under the Science and Technology Law––the very law that CONACYT was pushing to modify. The forum sued CONACYT and won. In January 2020, a judge mandated to CONACYT to give the forum the resources. To the date, CONACYT hasn’t complied.

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In July 2020 CONACYT’s attorney Rosenda Cruz filed a legal complaint accusing the forum of stealing more than $12 million, accusing it of using the money to buy a house, overpay its staff, and have luxuries like drivers and expensive banquets. The forum hasn’t presented the necessary documents to trace back what all the money was used for, Buylla alleged. Now, Attorney General Gertz is acting upon that complaint in his quest to incarcerate the 31 scientists, all of them previous members of the forum and its Board of Directors. The scientists say that the Forum used the funds properly and that they provided proof of the use of their budget to CONACYT. Moreover, Buylla has denied having anything to do with Gertz’s accusations.

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For now, the charges have stalled and the investigation continues. Several former members of the forum, some of them among the accused, wrote in a letter that they have provided evidence of the institution’s accounting to CONACYT. Still, they are having a hard time making their case since the money that they are being accused of stealing came from previous presidential administrations, and CONACYT says that there are missing financial documents.

In the meantime, this dispute is having enormous implications for science in Mexico. Members of the scientific community allege that the government’s investigation is merely an attempt to silence those who question its decisions.

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For instance, they point out that CONACYT has been cutting funds for a lot of different scientific programs and institutions. Among them are scholarships for students to get master’s and Ph.D. degrees abroad, and programs like CONACYT Catedras (designed to create jobs and opportunity for young scientists in Mexico) and the state trust funds­­––which are intended to finance scientific research without political negotiations around the country’s budget getting in the way. These decisions took place without consulting the scientific community. They would be legal under the proposed changes to the science law, but again, that proposal hasn’t been formally passed and implemented.

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“Could it be that this disproportionate attack against scientists is because the new [science and technology] law is about to be approved, and [the government] wants to sow fear so there aren’t protests against a law that seeks to concentrate power and limit resources and research freedom?” astrophysicist Julieta Fierro tweeted.

It’s worth noting that Attorney General Gertz has his own bone to pick with the scientific community. Many of them objected when, in April, Buylla approved his long-standing request to join the prestigious National Researchers System, which recognizes and promotes the scientists whose work contributes to the development of research-related activities. Previously, CONACYT had found Gertz’s work––he has a Ph.D. in law and produced academic work on the subject––didn’t make him a fit for membership in the system.

Now members of the scientific community from Europe and the United States have expressed their support for the Mexican scientists. In a letter signed by more than 100 researchers from all over the world, they say that, although they agree it’s important budgets be audited, the forum’s budgets were audited in due time, and ask CONACYT to value the 31 scientists’ commitment to science and technology.

Whether or they will ever end up arrested, this dispute will serve as a warning to other scientists who are considering opposing the government—and that’s extremely dangerous.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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