Mexico Backs Down on Researcher Travel Rules

Concerns linger about government attitudes toward science.

June 14, 2019

Mexican scholars have warned of a breakdown of relations with the country’s president after he was forced to backtrack on strict new measures that would have banned all unauthorized foreign travel by researchers.

A “memorandum of austerity” published on May 3 outlined plans by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to reduce public spending on science, including a 50 percent cut in academics’ international travel expenditure and a 30 percent cut to budgets earmarked for travel within the country.

The plans would have required all staff employed by Mexico’s federally funded research agencies to seek authorization -- signed off by the president himself -- to travel abroad.

At a press briefing, López Obrador, who began his presidential term in December, told researchers planning work-related travel that “if … you can resolve something over the telephone, do it and save [money] instead.”

But the strictness of the proposals resulted in an angry backlash from academics, forcing the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) to adjust the criteria on June 5.

“Students, researchers and academics in the science and technology sector who do not hold command and liaison positions are not required to request authorization for academic commissions abroad,” the council said.

The news came as a relief to Marcos Namad, a postgraduate researcher at the publicly funded Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Having been accepted for a placement at a research center in Chicago in July, he was told that the austerity proposals meant that his trip would be canceled and that the money he had spent on flights would not be reimbursed.

Now that the restrictions have been loosened, his trip is unlikely to be affected. “Even so, there are many austerity measures that are affecting our salaries and academic work,” Namad warned. “Part of this problem is that there is no distinction between bureaucrats or public officials and researchers in government-dependent research centers.”

Eugenia Roldán Vera, a researcher in history and philosophy at Cinvestav, said the measures had had a chilling effect on the scientific community and were indicative of a growing divide between academe and the state.

“What scientists are most opposed to is not the fact that travel must be authorized [or limits on] travel funds,” she said. “What is unacceptable for all is that the president himself wants to authorize them. This dominance of the political over the academic is unprecedented.”

Public sector employees in managerial positions at public institutions such as Cinvestav still must refer travel requests to Conacyt representatives for authorization. To win approval, López Obrador said, applicants had to provide evidence that the trip was “most indispensable, [and] that they are not going to do political tourism … at the expense of the treasury.”

But Roldán Vera said the idea that the president perceived researchers as “public officials” was nonsense. “I think that there is a determined policy of reducing public spending on science from the perspective that science is superfluous for society, that there is a divorce between science and social welfare, and that scientists are a privileged class because we [have] earned good salaries,” she said.

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