After years of paying lip service to the importance of science and technology, Mexico is finally committing itself financially to the priority. And universities in the United States should take note.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December 2012, has vowed to raise spending on research and development to 1 percent of gross domestic product by 2018, up from the current 0.48 percent. That level would bring Mexico’s economy in line with those of similar size, like Brazil’s.
What’s more, over the past two years, the annual budget for Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology has increased 32 percent, to $2.4-billion, according to government figures. The council, known as Conacyt, oversees most government research grants, undergraduate and graduate scholarships, and other science-and-technology programs.
The increased funding is part of a broader government strategy to strengthen graduate programs and promote student exchange. Conacyt has budgeted for an additional 27,000 scholarships for students to study in Mexico and abroad. This number is in addition to the existing 58,000 scholarships, according to the agency.
It’s against that backdrop that Mexico is working to increase higher-education collaboration with the United States.
Last month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Mexico City in part to discuss technology collaborations with Mr. Peña Nieto and Mexican business leaders, and to officially start the Bilateral Forum for Higher Education, Innovation, and Research.
The forum, which was announced during a visit by President Obama to Mexico last year, works to increase the level of academic exchange between the two countries.
It builds on another Obama initiative, 100,000 Strong in the Americas, which aims to send 100,000 U.S. students to study in Latin American and Caribbean countries by 2020, and to attract an equal number of students from there to study in the United States. Mexico has responded with its own initiative, Proyecta 100,000, which aspires to send 100,000 Mexican students to the United States and to attract 50,000 U.S. students to Mexico by 2018.
Those goals are highly ambitious, given the current state of student exchange between the two countries.
Since 2007, when former President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels in Mexico, the number of Americans studying there has plummeted, from 10,000 to 4,000 students in 2013, according to the most recent “Open Doors” report. As a result, Mexico is no longer the top destination for U.S. students in Latin America; it now ranks fourth, behind Costa Rica, Argentina, and Brazil.
Meanwhile, the number of Mexican students enrolled in U.S. colleges has grown only gradually, from 9,000 in 1997 to 14,000 in 2013. Mexicans now represent just 1.7 percent of the more than 800,000 foreign students in the United States.
Changing that dynamic will require major efforts on the part of both governments, and by the institutions themselves. And while Mexico’s investments are significant, they still lag far behind those of its rival Brazil, which is spending more than $1-billion on study-abroad scholarships alone.
After decades of foot-dragging on R&D, however, Mexico’s efforts represent a step in the right direction.