Editor’s note: Last week, Mexico’s chief prosecutor requested arrest warrants for 31 scientists, researchers and academics formerly employed by Conacyt on corruption charges — or, as Dr. Toledo might say, diversion of public funds that did not benefit the country. The scientific community has responded with outrage in this developing story that exemplifies Dr. Toledo’s thesis, published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada on Aug. 24.
We are living at the pinnacle or crest of corruption in the world — the use and abuse of political and economic power, knowledge or hierarchical position. The list includes businessmen, tycoons, bankers, public employees, presidents and prime ministers, kings, princes and princesses, priests, bishops and archbishops, diplomats, rectors, sports people, art and science and a long et cetera. This phenomenon coincides with the highest concentration of wealth in history represented by the profits of automobile, oil, coal, nuclear, mining, food, pharmaceutical, chemical, agrochemical, biotechnological, cement, tourism, metallurgical and telecommunications corporations, arms and weapons manufacturers, and all the rest.
To achieve this, corporate power put the scientific and technical knowledge of each branch at its service. This meant the creation of an army of specialized researchers capable of efficiently addressing segments of knowledge without questioning either the ethical implications or risks for humanity or the planetary environment. This technoscience with obedient researchers was achieved by the imposition of a dogma:
all scientific and technical knowledge is morally good, since there is only one Science, immaculate and at the service of development, peace and humanity.
In recent decades, corporations have not only consolidated their own bodies of science and technology, they have also been penetrating, co-opting and putting at their service science carried out in public and private universities, in technological and government institutions (see the case of the United States, Heads They Win, Tails We Lose).
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Editor’s note: As Dr. Toledo suggests, this issue is international in scope. Two articles illustrate the point. The first is “The ‘Big Lie’ of Blue Hydrogen Starts With Ignoring Basic Economics” by Justin Mikulka (investigative journalist with degree in civil and environmental engineering from Cornell) posted in DeSmog blog (September 10, 2021).
Mikulka: “The two biggest false claims about blue hydrogen are that it is clean energy and that it is economically viable.”
First, he recounts the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association feeding a false claim of blue hydrogen’s economic viability to the UK Treasury. Then he introduces the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, or CGEP (primarily funded by the oil and gas industry), which is actively pushing blue hydrogen as clean energy. Mikulka attended a CGEP presentation titled “Zero-C Hydrogen” (C, Carbon). The panel was heavily weighted with expert officials from Saudi Arabia, which exports methane.
Dr. Toledo himself substantiates the case in the United States by citing a research report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists-US in 2012. The following excerpt describes how corporations corrupt and coopt science; tragically, the findings are as true today as when they were published almost a decade ago.
Heads They Win, Tails We Lose
How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense
Published by Union of Concerned Scientists,
Feb 17, 2012.
Federal decision makers need access to the best available science in order to craft policies that protect our health, safety, and environment.
Unfortunately, censorship of scientists and the manipulation, distortion, and suppression of scientific information have threatened federal science in recent years.
This problem has sparked much debate, but few have identified the key driver of political interference in federal science: the inappropriate influence of companies with a financial stake in the outcome.
A new UCS [Union of Concerned Scientists] report, Heads They Win, Tails We Lose, shows how corporations influence the use of science in federal decision making to serve their own interests.
Methods of Abuse
The report describes five basic methods that corporations use to influence the scientific and policy-making processes:
Corrupting the Science. Corporations suppress research, intimidate scientists, manipulate study designs, ghostwrite scientific articles, and selectively publish results that suit their interests.
Public Perception. Private interests downplay evidence, exaggerate uncertainty, vilify scientists, hide behind front groups, and feed the media slanted news stories.
Restricting Agency Effectiveness. Companies attack the science behind agency policy, hinder the regulatory process, corrupt advisory panels, exploit the “revolving door” between corporate and government employment, censor scientists, and withhold information from the public.
Influencing Congress. By spending billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions, corporate interests gain undue access to members of Congress, encouraging them to challenge scientific consensus, delay action on critical problems, and shape the use of science in policy making.
Exploiting Judicial pathways. Corporate interests have expanded their influence on the judicial system, used the courts to undermine science, and exploited judicial processes to bully and silence scientists.
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Dr. Toledo’s article continues…
In Mexico, the three decades of neoliberalism, the obscene complicity between political and economic power, not only left a devastated country, they also created corrupt regimes that disrupted much within the nation’s institutional spheres. Science was no exception. It was a combination of institutional actions with roles played by a minority of academics who carried out, promoted and/or approved those actions. An accounting of the main diversion of public funds toward science and technology that did not benefit the country between 2000 and 2013 was presented by the director of CONACYT [National Council of Science and Technology] (at the morning conference on October 20, 2020).
Ricardo Balderas, investigative journalist, developed the report The Science Mafia, which shows how for 16 years the Science and Technology Consultative Forum served as a civil association that enabled a group of academics to usurp public functions and benefit from CONACYT funds, about 50 million [Mx pesos | 2.4 million USD] annually (https://lamafiadelaciencia.projectpoder.org/).
In a recently published open letter (https://concienciacritica2021.wordpress.com/), some 400 academics denounced the current:
- Science and Technology Law, published in 2002, which has been the subject of eight reforms that have permitted an accelerating privatization and liberalization of public resources; the
- Common pattern was the commercialization of knowledge subjects and products; and the
- Administration of funds through 65 trusts: one percent received 40 percent of these resources.
The letter exposes the millions in non-refundable transfers that CONACYT made in the past to companies and corporations, such as Intel (200 million Mx pesos | 2.9 million USD), Cummins (61 million Mx pesos | 3 million USD), Volkswagen (132 million Mx | 6.5 million USD), Nemak (104 million Mx | 5.1 million USD) and even to the giant Monsanto (20.8 million Mx | 1 million USD), as well as to private universities.
A notable act of the collusion between the neoliberal government and corporations was [then-President] Enrique Peña Nieto’s appointment in 2013 of Francisco Bolívar Zapata (FBZ) to head the Coordination of Science, Technology and Innovation of the Presidency. FBZ is the scientist who led the introduction and defense of transgenic crops in Mexico and is responsible for the Secretariat of Agriculture and the Environment partnering with Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and Phil to grow transgenic [GM] corn and soybeans. These attempts were stopped by a legal action won collectively by a group of 53 people and 20 organizations on July 5, 2013, and against which the neoliberal government used public resources to litigate in favor of the corporations.
Part II follows below
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Part II: September 7, 2021 https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/09/07/opinion/020a2pol
In the first part of this essay, we showed how under neoliberal regimes, scientific policy gave rise to corruption on an institutional scale, such as the collusion between CONACYT and companies and corporations or the creation of trusts and civil associations. It was a digression from the objective that the science of a country should pursue, which is to contribute to the full satisfaction of its citizens.
This last part explores the role played by researchers or academics without whom institutional corruption would not be possible. This implies examining the role played by the scientific or techno-scientific ideology. In recent decades, a global process of increasing research has been consolidated by giant corporations and by the co-optation of public science (carried out in universities and government agencies) by those same companies. The world has seen the gradual or sudden conversion of public or social science toward a corporate science where the objectives of research are aimed at increasing the profitability and profits of the sponsoring companies. This process has been facilitated by the repeated imposition of scientistic ideology in academic communities.
Three principal myths embellish scientism.
The first myth has to do with the fetishization of science. There is always a tendency to speak of Science (with a capital ‘S’) elevated to a kind of supreme entity, instead of recognizing the different modalities of scientific endeavor, each of which pursues different and even antagonistic ends. There is not just one, there are many sciences.
This fetish is accompanied by the false idea — the second myth — that all scientific activity is automatically beneficial, morally good, and ideologically and politically neutral.
The third myth has been accurately described by Jorge Reichmann:
“Scientific knowledge is a great good. But how can so many researchers fall into the scientific naivety of believing that simply increasing knowledge will lead to an improvement in the human condition? Scientific progress does not necessarily imply human progress.”
In Mexico this has been demonstrated. The science and technology budget curve since the founding of CONACYT in 1971 has been upward, yet the loss of Mexican well-being and the deterioration of their natural and environmental environment have increased dramatically. The demand for more budget as an automatically virtuous act is therefore a fallacious argument.
For the case of Mexico, in a previous essay we showed how the orientation, the approaches and even the theoretical and methodological frameworks of many areas of research were marked by the interests of capital. This was evident in agronomy, hydraulics, biomedicine, chemistry, biotechnology, ecology and the study of biodiversity.
The general atmosphere of commercialization that prevailed during the neoliberal period in Mexico added a fourth factor to the scientific imaginary that facilitated corruption. In the heat of what was happening throughout society, many researchers bought into the idea of becoming “researchers for innovation”, for commercial rather than for social good. Official speeches had already introduced the idea of innovation. This new attribute was, without exception, understood as contributions to national and international private companies. Hence the absurd idea of measuring progress by the number of patents.
Similarly, politicians believed themselves entrepreneurs (and vice versa), and many colleagues became entrepreneurial scientists with Darwin heads, Rockefeller bodies, and Bill Gates claws (A. Barreda, 2021). From there, biotechnology companies, environmental or biomedical consulting firms, firms dedicated to agribusiness, informatics or chemical consultancy proliferated. Without scruples, the main ecologists of the country dedicated themselves to washing the image of the largest polluting and ecocidal companies, and biotechnologists turned into corporate shareholders. In a normal way, subsidies, awards, scholarships and support flowed from corporations to biological, ecological, biotechnological, agronomic, biomedical and chemical research centers.
In sum, the commercialization that spread into all areas of the country’s social life also arrived at science and made normal a set of unethical attitudes, values and practices. Today we urgently require the rescue and reboot of science and technology with a vocation for service, and this implies the presence of critical researchers with social and environmental awareness.
Victor M. Toledo, research scientist at the Institute for Ecosystem and Sustainability Research (Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad), Morelia Campus UNAM, is a Mexican biologist with PhD from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Dr. Toledo served as head of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in the administration of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from May 2019 to September 2020.
Translated by Jane K. Brundage for Voices for Mother Earth.
This article was originally published in Spanish in La Jornada and is reposted here with permission.
Feature photo, headquarters of Conacyt, by Creativos Universitarios UNAM.