Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Operations at scientific research centers at risk due to cuts, scientists warn

The ongoing operation of 26 scientific research centers is at risk due to budget cuts implemented by the federal government, scientists warn.

As part of the government’s austerity program, President López Obrador signed a memorandum on May 3 that instructed the Secretariat of Public Administration to make additional cuts to public spending in a range of areas, including funding for the research centers operated by the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt).

One scientist said the scientific sector has faced budget cuts for the past five years but described the latest one as a tipping point.

“. . . Now we’ve crossed a red line that means the dismissal of operational personnel . . . and other restrictions,” said Fabián Rosales of the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (Inaoe).

Miguel Rubio, director of the Institute of Ecology (Inecol), said the budget cuts extended to allowances for gasoline, which makes it difficult for researchers to conduct field work.

“. . . Obviously we have to go out into the field, our raw material is biological material and the data we collect. If the gasoline allowance is insufficient, that limits us from performing one of our essential activities. We can’t do ecology from Google Earth,” he said.

Rubio highlighted the importance of the work carried out by Inecol researchers, recalling that in 2004 the United States implemented an embargo on Haas avocados from Michoacán because it feared they were introducing fruit flies to that country.

However, Inecol scientifically proved that was not the case and a California court lifted the ban, he said.

“As a result of that, an economic spillover of US $6.5 billion has been generated and development in the Uruapan area has taken off. There are several projects like this that are in danger, ones in which we apply knowledge to solve social problems. Austerity measures make sense for the bureaucratic secretariats but for research centers the cuts . . . hit the essential, not the superfluous,” Rubio said.

Morales said the gasoline cuts also threatened the work of Inaoe researchers, explaining that it would possibly prevent them from traveling to the Large Millimeter Telescope located on top of the Sierra Negra volcano in Puebla.

“You have to go up the mountain in 4x4s; the resources for gasoline are essential in order to reach the telescope,” he said.

López Obrador’s May 3 memorandum also slashed by half the funding allocated to the research centers to contract third parties, including those who carry out maintenance of highly-specialized equipment.

Eugenio Rafael Méndez, a coordinator at a Conacyt research center in Ensenada, Baja California, said that maintenance of the northeast earthquake monitoring network will be affected.

“Maintaining the network is a matter of national security,” he said. “The equipment . . . is deteriorating and if it stops operating, we’ll lose a comprehensive vision of the country’s seismic activity.”

The president has said that implementing austerity measures will free up resources that can be directed to the heavily indebted state oil company but Méndez pointed out that scientific studies also have the capacity to help Pemex.

He explained that an oceanography team from the Ensenada Conacyt center had analyzed and modeled water currents in the Gulf of Mexico in order to avoid oil spills reaching the United States coastline.

“When deep water exploration started, they realized that there was a security problem on the [oil] platforms. The research team saved Pemex millions,” Méndez said.

The budget cuts have even forced Inecol and a Conacyt technology center in Jalisco to impose restrictions on their employees with regards to the use of electricity.

Bans on the use of air conditioners and the charging of electronic devices as well as strict closing times are among the measures introduced to help cut power costs.

While Conacyt’s total budget was slashed by 12% – or almost 3 billion pesos (US $157.7 million) – this year, cuts to spending at its research centers have ranged between 30% and 50%.

Director María Elena Álvarez-Buylla has pledged that Conacyt will “do more with less” but scientists are skeptical about the claim and question the logic of López Obrador’s cuts.

“The president hasn’t realized that science is also an ally for the development of the country,” Méndez said.

Source: El Universal (sp) 

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