Mexico’s public think tanks’ network: support the system

11 May 2011

A few months ago I had a discussion with a colleague about how to support research and policymaking in a country without having to pick ‘winners’ -i.e. funding a particular think tank. Treating think tanks as part of a broader system and funding the system would be one way. And a year ago in a TEDx event in Peru I argued for more funding for economic and social research think tanks along side the support that technology research is already receiving there.

Mexico, a country often dismissed as a developing country (or fragile state in some circles) has a lot to share with the world. If you are reading this in a university in the U.S. or in Europe, take a few minutes to think of all the Mexicans you know: I bet you won’t have trouble thinking of a few. Ask them where they get their funding from: I bet most will say that they get it from the state.

Well, Mexico’s National Science and Technology Council (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia) has developed a network of 27 public research institutions working on three large areas:

10 in the exact and natural sciences, 8 in the social sciences and humanities, 8 focus on technological development and innovation, and one offers post-graduate funding.

The network is decentralised to ensure that all regions benefit from the centres’ efforts and they are expected to work together to maximise the impact of their research: natural sciences and humanities coming together to facilitated innovations in public policy and the development of new products and services, for example.

But the centres are also the engine room of current and future generations of PhDs and experts in Mexico. They have been given a broad mandate to undertake research, disseminate knowledge, generate and develop innovations, and develop new generations of researchers to ensure the sustainability of the system. There is plenty of information about this -and the centres in this document outlining the system of mexican public research centres.

Now, Mexican value for research is not new. The literature recognises the role of technocracy in Mexican policymaking (and politics) and the factors that has driven this growth. The rise of experts’ power in policymaking has been explained for the case of Mexico (Camp, 1998, p. 197) as a consequence of:

  1. The influence of formal knowledge in Mexico’s political culture, especially the demand for higher education among their political leaders;
  2. The institutionalisation of political leadership, specifically the role of the executive branch and the links between the bureaucracy and the academic community. The larger and more professionalised the more important the role of technocrats in it.
  3. The impact of the presidential system in the polity. In the United Kingdom and other parliamentary systems, ministers come from the elected parliament, where the civil service provides the technocratic body of the state. In presidential systems, rather than relying on congress to be the training ground for ministers (technocratic leaders, after all), the executive takes over legislative roles from parliament and becomes an initiator of policy and thus demands new levels of experts.
  4. The supremacy of civilian over military political leadership –this is almost unique in Mexico where technocrats are identified with civilians –in other Latin American countries it is possible to reserve some areas for military technocrats.
  5. The growth and prestige of professionalism in all facets of society, notably in public life.
  6. The demand for economic skills to administer and solve complex public policy issues.
  7. The long term evolution of a pragmatic versus an ideological leadership
  8. The degree and style of competition between national and provincial politicians.
  9. The increasing influence of foreign ideologies and socializing experiences. In fact, Camp wrote that the political elite in Mexico came from fewer than two dozen, especially Ivy League, universities.

And so if the website for the centres’ system is correct, the network is trying to democratise this expertise, expanding it to other fields and ensuring that the benefits of knowledge are felt beyond the usual learned communities that make up the technocratic policy elites of many countries.

I know that some donors working in the least developed countries of the world find it rather uncool to learn from Latin America but, maybe, sometimes, its worth having a look. I am sure this system has its own problems but the idea -and what it aims to achieve should at least inspire curiosity.