A few weeks ago I started this article trying to explain why would someone want to come back to Mexico after living many years abroad. After a few weeks of chaos in my current job I ended up asking myself……why hooo why did I come back?!!!!!. However, not long ago the BBC published an article about the deaths of many illegal immigrants that cross the Mexican border every day to find a better life in the US. The comments in that article many times are full of hate and discrimination, however in my opinion many others fail to see what for me is the origin of the problem….. the inability of Mexicans to create a better country. First hand I have seen that people tend to blame others, mainly the government, for our own downfalls. The truth is that the country is what it is because of us, the society. In many cases we lack the coherence to work towards a common good and more importantly we enjoy complaining without actually doing something to change the situation. This lack of actions is why I write this article. It is up to us, the citizens, not the government, to be the solution to our problems.
Very recently the National Council of Science and Technology decided to offer some fellowships (Cátedras para Jovenes Investigadores) similar to those offered by the Royal Society in the UK. This program offers the stability of a relatively well-payed job to young talents, currently lost due to the lack of an opportunity in Mexico. I think this it is a great idea that could encourage many talented young scientists to come back to this country, I really hope they do. I believe is through actions like this one that we can turn the situation and make a better country for ourselves.
As they say, you talk based on your own experience (“hablas como te va en la feria”) and I know I am quite young to be giving advice, but here is my very personal opinion on a few issues in Mexico, just in case someone is thinking about coming back. I know I talk a lot about funding here but like in any other place, either you get some or you die….professionally speaking of course:
1- There is plenty of funding in this country; you just have to work for it. Sure compare to other countries you will have access to less sources of funding but that doesn´t mean that there is none. An Argentinian friend told me that he envies us for the number of open calls that CONACYT (Similar to the Science Foundation in the US) has every month. I tend to agree. Unless you expect to apply only for basic science, you will have the chance to apply for several calls for funding, fully supported by the government. Additionally, if you are proactive you can get funding directly from the industry, or through projects partially funded by them (the government gives a good number of grants for this type of projects). I know a good number of colleagues that have no idea about CONACYT because all the money they get is through the industry. I also know colleagues that bitterly complain for the lack of funding, but many times do not take the time to look for those open calls. Sure you will get a great number of proposals rejected, but if you think this is different in other countries you are wrong. Here I take the expertise of my previous boss, a very successful professor in Manchester: “be smart, use your time wisely, there is no such thing as a perfect proposal…do not try to create one, and above all be patient, you will get far more rejected projects than those approved, but learn how to improve them at every attempt”. In this point, and as a young researcher I can guarantee something….you will get very frustrated.
2- Networking. Many times we underestimate the importance of networking….what I call “the art of drinking coffee”. While working at the European Commission I learned the importance of drinking coffee and I loved it. Like any other place, being good at networking will help you get yourself known and get better chances of success. As we were told during a course for the Royal Society, you have better chances of getting your project approved if the person who reads it can put a face on it and know who you are. Getting yourself known is important, however here many times this is mixed with having “friends” (tener palancas) regardless if the project is good or not. Granted I have seen bad projects being approved leaving some good ones on the side, but I do not think is only a problem here. My experience so far is that people here are happy to collaborate, something that is important considering that hardly any institutions will have all the state of the art equipment that you might need for your research.
3- You are not in Kansas anymore. For the past 12 years I worked in the nuclear sector, where funding in Europe was widely available. However, at my return I found myself working in an area that had little importance….and funding. Here I had to question, why would it be important to develop state of the art nuclear fuel when the Mexican government has no intention to use it and half of the population lives in poverty? For me working only in the nuclear sector was no longer an option, I had to diversify or die. What does my country needs? With what I know, how can I solve it? The calls for proposals are tending more and more at the first question, what does THIS country needs? I know the UK is moving towards this direction too so either here or abroad you will have to face this. Solving the needs of our people should be paramount in our work.
4- Do not forget the society. Many times we tend to balance our work between academia and industry; some tend to move more into industrial work, while others into academia. However, I think we are forgetting the third pillar, society. Many of us complain that Science and Technology has no relevance in this country. We want it to be important? then lets make it important!. You do not get people to know your work by only publishing papers or getting a product and a patent. We need to go out and actually interact with them. For me is frustrating when I take a taxi and ask the driver to take me to my job and he ask me if it is a school or a company?. For an institution that has been in this town for 27 years, it cannot be that we are hardly known. Sure, the industry knows very well who we are and where they can find us, but not the rest of the population. Since I work in a Federal Institution they are the ones who pay my salary. Personally, I think in a country with low levels of education and high levels of poverty we need to be part of this change. Many have asked, why would we do this if it does not count for our promotion or salary, the answer for me is…because is the right thing to do. I am not saying that we should take our bags and “teach” all those in poverty, but we can make an effort and participate in outreach projects, or better yet create some new ones where we can show the wonders of science and technology. I see it with my son, it is not the same to see an insect in a book than actually take it to the microscope and show it to him. If kids are the future and the present is rotten then let’s make sure this future is bright.
I came back to México, mainly because of my wife and son, but also because I want to be part of the solution for the problems we face.