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Revising the state of science in Mexico – Quantum Tunnel Podcast

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Science in Mexico

A focus editorial about science in Mexico appears in the most recent issue of Nature Materials. The editorial content was  prepared, commissioned and edited by Joerg Heber and myself. It includes a commentary by Arturo Menchaca Rocha, President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and an interview with Juan Ramón de la Fuente, President of the International Association of Uniersities and former Rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

In terms of population, Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and the second most-populous country in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico boasts an abundance of natural resources, all of which are important to its economy and oil being a very important one of them. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2009 Mexico was the world’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil, and the second-largest supplier of oil to the United States. In contrast, although the country has substantial natural gas reserves, Mexico is a net importer of this resource. This is of course a very brief assessment of the energy situation in the country, but one that can be extended to other areas, including education, science and technology.

There is no doubt that Mexico has improved access to education and literacy over the past few decades. According to a 2007 World Bank report, enrolment at the primary level is nearly universal (97.9% net), and more children are completing primary education. However, this is not the case at higher education levels.

Achieving a strong economic growth and a high level of human development requires increasing the investment in science, technology and innovation, as well as a close collaboration between government, private sector and higher education and research institutions. In the case of Mexico, in order to solve the current lag in the areas mentioned above there are three issues that need to be addressed, and which are analysed in the recent editorial inthe Nature Materials.

The first thing to tackle is to compensate the slow development in basic science, manifested for instance in the in the rates of Research and Development personnel and researchers which are among the lowest in those ranked by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which places Mexico in a low position compared to other OECD countries. This situation can be partly explained bu the lack of investment in infrastructure and the inefficiencies in human resource management, as pointed out by the commentary of Menchaca Rocha for Nature Materials.

A second point to address is to counter the enormous asymmetries between federal states, institutions and social sectors, as highlighted by Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez. For instance, in terms of institutions for example, in 2009 UNAM received a budget of 1.6 billion US dollars from the Federal Government, which is larger than the budget of some states in Mexico. However, other publicly funded Universities around the country do not have access to similar resources, producing an acute imbalance. Nonetheless, these other institutions make important contributions to the research output of the country, although their visibility might be reduced.

The third issue is to improve technological transfer. In Mexico the business sector plays a much smaller role in the innovation process than the higher education sector. As a result Mexico has an enormous dependence on foreign technology and a very low rate of registration patents from Mexican nationals.

In order to tackle these issues it is necessary to bring together researchers, academics, directors and managers of higher education institutions, research centres and legislators in order to harness the potential of science and technology more effectively. Juan Ramón de la Fuente brings up the urgency for a strong state policy for science and technology and hints at the need for legislators to take up the responsibility to make this a reality.

Two hundred years ago, Mexico embraced the idea of political independence and in the last hundred years of Mexican history, the country has seen the creation of the vast majority of its higher education institutions, as well as the systematisation of research as a professional activity. It is time now for Mexico to take the necessary steps to provide its scientific and technological development with a strong basis in order to allow the country to be fully engaged in an ever more competitive world.

The editorial is available to be seen freely to registered users, whereas the Commentary by Arturo Menchaca Rocha and the interview with Juan Ramón de la Fuente can only be accessed bu subscribers.


Testing Relativity on Earth

Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that relative speed and gravity affect the passing of time. Relativistic effects have been measured using synchronised atomic clocks on jumbo jets back in the 70s. However, more recently researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have tested relativity at a more everyday-life scale, as reported in the journal Science. Chin-wen Chou and colleagues have shown that time speeds up if you raise your height for instance by going a rung up a ladder, and it slows down if you travel at just 36 kilometres per hour.

Daisy Fossil

A 47 million year old fossil of a daisy has been identified in the Argentinean city of Bariloche. The Argentinean and Swedish scientists also found traces of pollen and their findings have been reported in the journal Science. According to the scientists the Asteraceae family, to which daisies belong to, are originally from the Patagonian region and from here it aprese to the rest of the world. This discovery is quite interesting as usually flowers do not leave fossil records, they usually desintegrate.

Heart stopping surgery

Heart surgeons use extreme cooling to allow them to stop a patient’s heart long enough to carry out surgery and then revive them. Sounds a bit like science fiction, but it is not.

The technique induces hypothermia on the patient, whose body is cooled to 18 degrees centigrades. This provides the surgeons with a brief but important window to perform surgery, which has to be completed before any brain damage is caused to the patient. Once the surgery is finished, the patient is warmed up and their heart restarted with a defibrillator.

The secret of a good dancer

Not everoine has the dance moves of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, but what is the secret if a good dancer? Scientists from Northumbria University have carried out a rigorous analysis of dance moves that make men attractive to women and their findings have been published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

The scientists captured the best moves of young men using 12 cameras. These movements were then converted into a computer-generated cartoon which women rated on a scale of one to seven. They found that women paid more attention to the torso, neck and head and that it was not just the speed of the movements, it was also the variability of the movement. Movements that went down terribly were twitchy and repetitive – so called “Dad dancing”.

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