When biologist Adriana Gómez Bonilla started her job at the College of Michoacán, Zamora, in September 2014, she never imagined she would become an expert on labor rights. “It would’ve seemed like the farthest thing to me,” she says.
But after 4 years, she was driven out of her job and into activism. Managers at Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt)—the country’s federal science funding agency—pressured her to resign in March 2018, citing poor evaluations, which she says are inaccurate. She refused; a few months later the agency stopped paying her.
Gómez Bonilla’s dismissal is one of hundreds of similar cases involving researchers employed by the Cátedras Conacyt (Conacyt Professorships) program, launched 7 years ago to alleviate the brain drain of young Mexican researchers. Conacyt has stopped paying researchers, terminated them without reasonable explanation, or coerced them into signing resignations, according to multiple sources who spoke with Science. A combination of budget cuts, politics, and a widening rift between the government and scientists is at work, Mexican researchers say. “I think deep down there is an intention to disappear the Cátedras program,” says a philologist who was terminated from the program.
She and others, including Gómez Bonilla, have filed lawsuits against Conacyt. As of June 2020 the agency faces 145 active lawsuits for wrongful termination amounting to $8.2 million in damages, according to an internal document reviewed by Science, and sources say most are from Cátedras researchers. In February, some 200 Cátedras researchers formed a union, hoping to negotiate a contract that would protect their jobs and improve working conditions.
Conacyt’s director, María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, denies the agency has unfairly dismissed employees. “No,” she says. “It’s not true.” She did not respond to further requests for comment. Currently the Cátedras program does not have a director, but sources point to Diego Axel López Peláez, deputy director of evaluation and monitoring, as the person making the decisions. López Peláez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As a result of Cátedras, “many Mexican researchers have chosen to stay and do science in the country,” and many came back from abroad to be part of it, says an archaeologist who was dismissed from the program. She is suing Conacyt and asked Science to keep her identity anonymous. “What these young researchers have contributed is of enormous value,” Ramírez García adds. Between 2015 and 2018, 78% of Cátedras researchers earned membership in Mexico’s prestigious National System of Researchers, says biomedical nutritionist Ana Lucrecia Elías López, a former Cátedras researcher who is fighting to rejoin the program after being coerced into resigning. This “is a sign of productivity,” she says.
Still, the program has struggled. Researchers are not on staff at their host institutions, which creates bureaucratic conflicts that can hinder their work. Finances have also been a challenge: Primarily because of insufficient funding, in 2018 the program was only halfway to its 3000-researcher goal.
But stresses skyrocketed in Álvarez-Buylla Roces’s term, which began in December 2018 and has been marked by a significant rupture between Conacyt and the scientific community. In February 2019, she referred to Cátedras researchers as “payroll freeloaders,” which sparked outrage. The next month, Álvarez-Buylla Roces promised 99 new spots for the program, but just 2 months later she said there would be no new openings while Conacyt evaluated the program’s economic viability and considered restructuring it. According to information released in response to a government transparency request and Conacyt documents, at least 425 researchers have left the program since it launched, most beginning in 2019; it now supports 1284 researchers. Sources say government austerity measures may be behind Conacyt’s alleged intentions to terminate the program. But it is also common in Mexican politics for the current administration to erase or replace the previous administration’s programs, according to Ramírez García. In 2020, the program’s budget was up 23% to $68 million, yet Conacyt hasn’t offered new openings since 2018 and dismissals have soared.
Researchers dismissed by the program report similar experiences. First, they say, Conacyt officials tried to coerce them into resigning with the promise of a severance payment. If they refused, the agency stopped paying them. Aeronautical engineer Oliver Huerta, for example, joined the program in 2014 and worked for 5 years at the Technological Institute of Advanced Studies of Ecatepec. In 2019, he noticed his institutional email had been blocked just when he needed to file a required annual report. Huerta contacted López Peláez, who said they had to meet in person. At Conacyt headquarters in Mexico City, López Peláez and a lawyer invited Huerta to sign his resignation. He refused. A few weeks later, Conacyt stopped paying him and directors at his host institution told him he had been dropped from the Cátedras program. He filed a lawsuit in December 2019, but there hasn’t been much progress. “We’re hanging up in a cloud,” he says.
For some of those removed from the program, including the archaeologist, being pregnant or having a newborn appears to have been a trigger. There’s a “pattern of an absolute ignorance on gender issues,” says Claudia Patricia Juan Pineda, a lawyer representing more than 20 former Cátedras researchers. “It seems that getting pregnant is like a crime.” In the archaeologist’s case, a few months after she notified officials of her high-risk pregnancy, she tried to upload her annual report but the online platform didn’t work. She immediately contacted López Peláez, who told her over the phone she was fired. A few days later, Conacyt stopped paying her and disabled her institutional email. “There is a lack of humanity that is completely impregnated in Conacyt,” she says.
Geologist María Jazmín Chávez Álvarez, a former Cátedras researcher, says when she was asked to resign in 2018, then–Cátedras Director Lorena Archundia said, “Look, this way you can stop worrying and then you can focus on your daughter.” “That really bothered me,” she says, because she never brought up her pregnancy and maternity. She refused to sign the form, and Conacyt stopped paying her. Archundia did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Elías López, who was forced to resign in 2019, filed a complaint last year with the National Human Rights Commission accusing Álvarez-Buylla Roces of wrongfully firing women researchers—including some with small children or experiencing complicated pregnancies—during the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to file a criminal lawsuit against Conacyt.
Some Cátedras researchers hope the new union, Siintacatedras, can secure greater research support and job security. “We are convinced that once we start a dialogue with Conacyt, we can reach an understanding of the great potential this program has,” says Siintacatedras Secretary General Mateo Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho, a political agroecologist at the College of the Southern Border. Conacyt has not yet responded to the invitation to negotiate but is legally required to sit down with union leaders and sign a contract by 7 July.
Others are less interested in mending bridges. That includes Gómez Bonilla, who now has a full-time position at the Metropolitan Autonomous University. If she wins her suit against Conacyt, the agency would owe her close to $265,000—double the amount of standard Conacyt grants for basic science projects. “Imagine how much science they could fund with that,” she says. “But instead they’re spending it on lawsuits that could’ve been avoided.”