Hundreds file suit targeting Mexico’s divisive science law

Hundreds file suit targeting Mexico’s divisive science law

María Elena Álvarez-Buylla is the head of Mexico’s main science agency.Credit: Raj Valley/Alamy

Hundreds of scientists and about one-third of the members of Mexico’s Congress have filed lawsuits declaring a recently passed science law unconstitutional. They say that the legislation, called the General Law on Humanities, Sciences, Technologies and Innovation, was passed using an irregular procedure and that it could harm scientific development in the country.

More than 200 lawmakers in opposition to the law filed their complaint with Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation on 6 and 7 June, the last days of a 30-day period during which they could challenge the law’s constitutionality. If the Supreme Court agrees that the law was passed atypically, “it will be overturned”, says Brasil Acosta, a member of a unit of Mexico’s Congress called the Chamber of Deputies who helped to file the legislators’ suit.

The scientists’ suits — more than 30 ‘amparos’ filed in at least 11 states by more than 300 individuals — are complementary to the legislators’ suit, says Joan Ochoa, a lawyer for the nonprofit legal organization Uniendo Caminos Mexico who is based in Guanajuato. Amparos protect individuals’ constitutional rights against acts committed by Mexican authorities. “Only one of the amparos needs to be accepted by the court for the law to be put on hold,” says Ochoa, who filed some of the suits on behalf of the scientists.

A fast-tracked law

Mexican officials proposed updating the country’s science law shortly after the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office in 2018. But delays occurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic and disagreements between political parties. In April, the Chamber of Deputies agreed to hold seven open parliamentary forums at which scientists could discuss what the law should include. Deputies were to then use information gleaned from these sessions to revise and vote on a proposed version of the new law and pass it to the Senate for approval.

After only two of the seven sessions had occurred, however, the Chamber of Deputies — controlled by the Morena party, to which López Obrador belongs — approved the proposed law and passed it along. The ruling party ‘fast tracked’ the process because the congressional period was about to end, and holding the remaining five parliamentary sessions would have extended consideration of the law to the next legislative period, which starts 1 September.

On 28 April, senators from the Morena party called a recess during an active Senate session and then held an ‘emergency session’ in another building to vote on the science bill, as well as on 19 others. The bills were passed in the early hours of the next morning.

There wasn’t a legal justification to call for an emergency meeting “because it was not urgent” that the science law be passed, Acosta says, adding that the actions are therefore unconstitutional.

Ruling-party senators contacted by Nature didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Solving national problems

Aside from how the law was passed, scientists and legislators are concerned about how the new legislation could affect science in the country. They say it concentrates power over research in the Mexican government. For instance, the law establishes a government council that will decide which science projects to prioritize for funding on the basis of their potential to solve national problems. That council will be led by the director of Mexico’s main science agency, the National Council of Humanities, Sciences and Technologies (Conahcyt). There will be eight scientists on the council, who will be vetted by an internal advisory body that is chaired by Conahcyt’s head, María Elena Álvarez-Buylla.

“Decisions are going to be very centralized,” says Romeo Saldaña, an ecologist at the Ibero-American University Puebla in Mexico.

Saldaña also worries that focusing on national problems will curtail the ability of scientists to do basic research. Funders will say “there is no money for what you want to do, only for this, which is a national priority”, he adds.

But some scientists are positive about the legislation. “I see in the law a lot of interest from this administration to establish what are really the needs of the country,” says Claudia Alvarado, a food scientist at the Center for Research and Assistance in Technology and Design of the State of Jalisco in Zapopan. “There is money and resources, and they are giving it to us, not with the goal to publish, but with the objective of having an impact on some problem in Mexico.”

‘No need to worry’

On 12 June, Álvarez-Buylla discussed the changes to the law during a presentation held both in person and virtually at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. The aim of the meeting was to address the scientific community’s doubts, share information on the law and create a dialogue, she said. “There’s no need to worry,” she told scientists.

The law might prioritize funding for research focused on national problems, but it also mentions support for research in all areas, Álvarez-Buylla said. “Colleagues who want to join the national agenda are more than welcome, as are colleagues who want to work in their cubicle on the proof of a theorem.”

However, some members of the scientific community are sceptical about these assurances. “Mexico is a country where there is not much money for science,” says Yuri Peña, a biotechnologist at the College of the Southern Border in Campeche. López Obrador’s administration, of which Álvarez-Buylla is a part, has cut funding for science across the board.

It’s unclear when the courts will respond to the lawsuits. After an amparo is filed, the litigation process can take eight or more months , Ochoa says. Although, if a certain judge sees this issue as a priority, that could speed up the proceedings, he adds. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s consideration of the legislators’ suit will depend on what else is on its docket, and whether it prioritizes the science law as a “politically relevant” issue, he says.

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