On 9 October, Tonatiuh Matos, president of the Mexican Physical Society (SMF), received an email that he says left him speechless. In it, the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), Mexico’s main science funding agency, notified Matos it would no longer pay the society’s membership dues for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). The funds will be redirected to the fight against COVID-19.
Many other national science organizations tell ScienceInsider they have recently received similar letters from CONACYT. The agency has canceled funding for memberships in organizations as diverse as the International Mathematical Union, the Latin American Biology Network, the Third World Academy of Sciences, the International Science Council, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
Unless they can find ways to pay for the memberships—a tall order given that some dues exceed $100,000—the move could lead to a withdrawal from the global science scene that scientists warn will isolate Mexico scientifically and deprive it of opportunities. “There will be no new ideas, there will be no new technology and therefore there will be no new developments, no innovation,” Matos says.
CONACYT’s cut is just the latest blow to the societies, most of which largely depend on government subsidies; membership fees alone don’t suffice to pay for activities such as conferences, science education, and participation in R&D projects. Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador has accused the groups, along with many other civil society organizations, of “corruption” and misusing government funding, and in February 2019 he ordered federal agencies to stop supporting the organizations. In response, CONACYT began to cut the science groups’ annual budgets.
“The government is presenting a negative image to the people of what we are. All those funds they gave to our associations were not for our salaries, they were to support the dissemination of science,” says Ignacio González, president of the Mexican Chemical Society, which received only 40% of its expected annual budget last year and nothing for this year.
CONACYT did not respond to requests for comment from ScienceInsider.
SMF had trouble last year paying its dues for the Ibero-American Federation of Physical Societies, the Latin American Centre for Physics, and the Canadian-American-Mexican Graduate Student Physics Conference, all of which come out of its general budget. Now, CONACYT has canceled a specific budget item for its dues at IUPAP, the world’s largest physics society—“the most important of all memberships,” Matos says.
Leaving international science organizations means missing out on membership benefits such as financial aid to attend meetings and workshops, free access to publications and networking activities, and the chance to host international conferences. Mexico will also forfeit its influence in decisions that affect regional and global science.
International collaboration is fundamental for the development of science.
For instance, María de la Luz Jímena de Teresa, former president of the Mexican Mathematical Society, says she and other Latin American representatives successfully lobbied the International Mathematical Union to appoint a Colombian scientist to oversee its policies for developing countries—“someone with knowledge of the facts,” she says. Membership in the union also enabled her society to organize workshops to promote gender equality in science and schools for the development of math in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Others stress that Mexico’s presence in international groups benefits other countries as well. As a biodiversity hot spot, the country is a vital participant in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an international network and data infrastructure, says Patricia Koleff, head of the facility’s Mexican delegation. Working with constrained resources has taught Mexican scientists to do a lot with relatively little, a skill that they can teach others, Gonzáles says. “Our society’s circumstances have given us a strong improvisation capacity.”
Mexican societies hope they can keep their memberships going through other activities, including by raising money from workshops and donations. They’re also trying to negotiate discounts or payment extensions. But Matos says budgets may simply be too tight: “This year we managed to stay afloat only because everything was suspended due to the pandemic. SMF received 13% of the normal budget. If it continues like this, next year we will have to stop almost all the society’s activities.”
Scientists understand Mexico’s dire economic situation and the need for sacrifices, but withdrawing from the global scene is “a very myopic way to look at what science is,” Jímena de Teresa says. “International collaboration is fundamental for the development of science.”