Mexico Has Elected A Scientist President. What Will That Mean?

8:14 minutes

A woman, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, stands at a podium giving a speech.
September 17th 2019, Mexico City, Mexico— Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, Mayor of Mexico City, presents her first report to the city congress. Credit: Shutterstock

Esta historia está disponible en español. This story is available in Spanish

This week, Mexico elected a historic president: Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, who will be the first woman to lead the nation, and was also an environmental engineer before entering politics.

Despite the president-elect’s scientific past, Sheinbaum Pardo has committed to following the lead of her predecessor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose science policies were deeply unpopular with many researchers in the country.

Mexico’s scientific community is split on how this election will impact science and research in the country. Rodrigo Pérez Ortega, a reporter at Science Magazine, joins Ira to talk through the complexities of this election and how scientists are reacting.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega is a reporter for Science Magazine based in Mexico City, Mexico.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: You may have seen the headlines from our neighbors to the south this week. Mexico elected an historic president. Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo is the country’s first female president and was an environmental engineer before entering politics. But Mexico’s scientific community is split on how this election will impact science and research in the country.

Here with me to help break down the reaction to this election is my guest, Rodrigo Peréz Ortega, reporter for Science magazine, based in Mexico City. Welcome to Science Friday.

RODRIGO PERÉZ ORTEGA: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. As you know, there were lots of headlines here in the US talking about how big of a deal this election will be for science because Claudia Sheinbaum is a leftist and a climate scientist, but I understand that things are a bit more complicated than that, right? How do you explain her politics to people outside of Mexico?

RODRIGO PERÉZ ORTEGA: You’re very correct that things are more complicated. So at first phase, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo and this election, it’s very progressive. And, of course, everybody should say, oh, she’s a scientist. She will help science. But as you said, it’s more complicated.

So the context comes from this present administration. This president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he’s a populist, and he rules this party, Morena, that was founded by him a couple of years ago. And so Claudia Sheinbaum is very close to him, and a lot of people are worried that she is going to continue the attacks on science that he has perpetrated.

So let me give you more context on that. His administration has pursued policies deeply unpopular here for scientists, including cuts to research spending, controversial restructuring of Mexico’s main science agency, CONACYT, and also we call them these mega projects like the mega train that are very environmentally destructive.

So the context here is that we have this progressive new president that comes from science. She’s a physicist. She did a PhD in environmental engineering. But he’s also part of this continuation of, let’s call it, one of the most hostile administrations for science in the recent decades. So yes, the scientific community is very split here in that regard.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re sort of holding their breath, waiting to see what happens?

RODRIGO PERÉZ ORTEGA: Exactly. And she has been very vague on many things that will happen to science. A lot of people are hoping that, because she’s a former scientist, she will support science because she understands how research works, how funding works, all these things that are long term and not just tied to one administration, which is six years here in Mexico. But also she has given all the signs that she will continue the projects of this administration.

One of the contentious points is a new science law. So this law was pushed by the current president. We call him AMLO, short for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And this law was very controversial because it basically centralizes a lot of power into these science agency here that controls most of the budget and the spending on research. So it centralizes all the power, and it’s flooded with this ideology of antineoliberal science, what they call it, so basically all the science that was done in previous administrations. So scientists are very worried that this new science law is steeped with ideology and not really realistic to how research has been working for so many years here.

When I talked to Claudia Sheinbaum some weeks ago, she was very open to revisiting dialogues with the community. What happened in this administration was that a lot of these changes in regulation and restructuring of the science law, they didn’t take the viewpoints of the scientific community. So they want to heal this fracture with this new president, who is a scientist. And I think that’s the first step that they are hoping to do, is revisit this law and change it, basically.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. I know that Mexico is a big oil-and-gas country. How could her election affect policy on that, since she has this background?

RODRIGO PERÉZ ORTEGA: I think that is one of the major points where she is or her proposals are different and also her actions from the current president because this current administration has invested a lot in oil and gas and a refinery. At some point, they used funds dedicated to science, and they invested in buying the Deer Park refinery in Texas, for example, which angered a lot of scientists.

But her actions as mayor of Mexico City speak that she has another agenda for renewable energies. She introduced a lot of electric buses in the city, invested in one of the largest, if not the largest, solar-panel plant in Latin America. And when she was a researcher, she was one of the first who introduced the idea or studied the idea of electric vehicles in Mexico City and, how would that impact greenhouse-gas emissions? So I think that’s one of the hopeful changes that scientists are waiting from her administration.

IRA FLATOW: So you’ll be watching it and watching her and the impact on science policy.


IRA FLATOW: How does a scientist deal with politics now that she’s the head of the country? Boy.

RODRIGO PERÉZ ORTEGA: It’s very interesting. Scientists, they were all very silent in the past years, always advocating for more budgets and resources, of course. So that’s one of the changes also in the new law. Previously in the science law, it was established that the country had to spend at least 1% of its GDP in research or science in general. And no administration had ever reached that level. But with this new science law that was introduced last year, that was gone. So there was no– even if no president was able to achieve that, now there was no goal.

So I think with all these changes, scientists, they even protest that at some point of all this restructuring of the science agency and budget cuts. So scientists have been very active, or at least a section of them have been very active in the past six years lobbying for science and asking for more participation in these decisions.

So now there are several organizations from scientists that are involved in science policy. So I think that’s a good thing that hasn’t happened before, and I think now the scientific community and these groups of scientists will be much more involved watching what Sheinbaum Pardo is going to be and especially the science agency that has been very controversial under this administration.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Rodrigo, we’re going to depend on you to be our eyes and ears in science in Mexico for us. So I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Rodrigo Peréz Ortega is a reporter for Science magazine based in Mexico City.

Copyright © 2024 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Santiago Flórez

Santiago Flórez is Science Friday’s community manager. He is a former teacher, anthropologist and journalist.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More