A first-of-its kind law in Mexico covering humanities, sciences, technology and innovation has sparked friction between the government and scientific community, with the government accused of “militarising” science.
Approved on 29 April and published on 8 May, the law converts the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) into the National Council of Humanities, Sciences and Technologies (CONAHCYT).
What has caused alarm is that its agenda under the General Law on Humanities, Sciences, Technologies and Innovation (HCTI) will be dictated through a governing board containing more officials (14) than scientists (eight).
“The [CONAHCYT] governing board will become the most important body that defines the future of the science, technology and innovation sector,” economist Gabriela Dutrénit, a professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City, told SciDev.Net.
Given the importance of this governing board, its make-up is seen as critical.
‘Militarisation’ of science
Some scientists are concerned that the law does not mention Mexico’s main universities, public research centres, academies or scientific associations as part of the renamed council. But it does mention the Ministry of Defence and Navy.
This, plus President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s increased defence department presence in other areas, has led to accusations by politicians and business organisations of “militarisation” of the scientific sector.
In response, a CONACYT statement on 11 April refuted claims that the new public policy was “militarised”. It said the defence ministry and navy had been included in the governing board because “both agencies use resources from the federal budget earmarked for HCTI activities”.
It also said that the legislation put “public institutions within the reach of the general population and not just a few people or organisations that claim fictitious representations.”
For Dutrénit, the key issue is the absence of diverse voices. “The law threatens federalism” since it lacks ways to integrate the particular needs of states outside Mexico City, she says.
The CONACYT statement says that “neither the states nor the municipalities have been represented on the CONACYT governing board, nor is CONACYT represented on the governing bodies of the states…”.
Several scientists’ groups have also opposed the law because it fails to mention explicitly the goal of reaching one per cent of GDP for science and technology. They say this makes it less likely that the target will be met.
Another controversy has been over prioritisation of issues by the new CONAHCYT which will be part of the council’s Strategic National Programmes (PRONACES).
These include topics that promote science with a greater social commitment, such as research in immunotherapies and problems like housing or migration.
Some believe these priorities imply a greater democratisation of knowledge.
Liliana López, a researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told SciDev.Net that the new law reflects the human right to science through “the participation, enjoyment and benefit of people who are not part of the scientific community”.
Others, such as the Morelos Academy of Sciences (ACMor), say this approach may reduce support for other research areas.
“This limits academic freedom and basic science by channelling resources, scholarships and other support only to those topics considered as part of PRONACES,” it warned. .
ACMor said that the law obliges universities to carry out basic and frontier science but lacks clarity or a guarantee of university autonomy.
Dutrénit welcomes the legislation’s reference to science more committed to society, but warns that this may affect basic science.
“Priority is going to be given to research that is oriented by the national agenda, so what will happen to those who study mathematics, physics, astronomy?,” she asked.
“If you don’t continue investing in [basic] science, that scientific base will gradually be reduced.
“We are not going to be prepared when you want to do new research aimed at solving problems.
“The future of the country is being sacrificed on those terms.”
On the positive side, López sees several benefits from the law, including state support of open access for scientific publications, and scholarships for postgraduate students at public sector universities.
But López agrees with Dutrénit that the legislative process has been unfortunate.
Discussion of a law for the sector dates back five years, during which period legislators from different political parties presented various bills. However, the approved one is based on an initiative produced by President López Obrador in December 2022 and no time was allocated for debating the text .
On 25 April the initiative was put to a Chamber of Deputies vote although it had not completed the required parliamentary procedures.
Four days later, without completing another part of the review process, the Senate approved the law after 14 minutes of debate in a ten-hour session in which more than a dozen laws promoted by the president were approved, without the presence of opposition legislators.
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks of the opposition National Action Party, who had been promoting a different law on the humanities, sciences, technologies and innovation since 2018, warned that irregularities “will be very vulnerable to litigation for violations of process, for violations of constitutionality”.
Romero Hicks says there are plans to challenge the law in court. “We will find out in the coming weeks,” he told SciDev.Net.
“Surely there will be a large number of writs of protection, possible actions of unconstitutionality and others,” he added.
*About the author: Roberto González studied Communicational Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where he specialized as a journalist
Source: This article was published by SciDev.Net