Mexico tries to lure world's best scientists Many are answering nation's call to upgrade infrastructure, industry

July 24, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

TONANCINTLA, Mexico -- Hrant Tovmassian, a 64-year-old astronomer, grimaces and shakes his head when he recalls how just a few years back, there was not a more dynamic place on the planet for scientific research than the Soviet Union.

Those days have ended for now, the Armenian scientist laments.

But, to Mr. Tovmassian's surprise, he has found First World ambition in the Third World.

"All my colleagues would like to come to Mexico," says Mr. Tovmassian, who came to this tiny Mexican town around the beginning of the year to teach and conduct research. "They want to work, and right now that is impossible there. There is no electricity, no telephones, no fuel and no money."

Mexico has launched an aggressive campaign to attract scientists like Mr. Tovmassian who can help improve the country's technology. Over the last 2 1/2 years, some 200 scientists from the former Soviet Union have been brought to Mexico, say officials at the National Council for Science and Technology.

They hope to bring another 200 foreign scientists, including Chinese and Indians, by the end of this year.

In addition, government officials say they have been able to bring back some 400 Mexican scientists who left during the economic crisis of the 1980s. In those years, Mexico could not match the salaries or other incentives that were luring its scientists away.

The effort to reverse this brain drain comes as the Mexican government opens its economy to foreign participation. To be an attractive place to do business, the country needs the help of engineers, scientists and other specialists to improve its infrastructure, including its highways and communications systems.

And Mexican industries, once shielded by protectionist policies, are being exposed to competition with companies around the world. To survive, Mexico's industries -- ranging from food production to textile manufacturing to oil refineries -- must update their technology and the quality of their products.

"The plan is to turn Mexico into a country that generates its own technology," says Miguel Jose Yacaman, deputy director of the National Council for Science and Technology. "If we want to participate in the global economy, then we need world class industries."

"Mexico is doing today what the United States has been doing for years," says Mr. Tovmassian. "It is trying to do whatever it can to get the best and the brightest minds in the world. It is asking strangers for help."

The government pays the moving expenses for all the scientists it invites to Mexico and pays them an average salary of about $2,000 a month, says Mr. Yacaman.

"That's more than three times what I could have made back home," says Mr. Tovmassian. "The decision to come here was very easy."

Mr. Tovmassian is one of about 12 Soviet scientists invited to work at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics, a complex of labs, classrooms and dormitories in Tonancintla, a town just outside Puebla.

The foreigners have been invited for periods from six months to two years, during which time they will help to train a new generation of Mexican scientists.

"The students here are not as well prepared as those from Moscow," says Sergei Chumakov, an optics researcher who came to Mexico 10 months ago. "But over time, I can see them improve and it is very encouraging."

"Many of my best students say they want to go to the United States and study," says Mr. Tovmassian. "But maybe as they see more and more top scientists coming to this country, they will understand that they do not need to leave to get the best training."

Mexican scientists who return home have their salaries paid for one year, giving the institutions in which they work time to create permanent positions.

But the decision for Mexican scientists to return is more difficult. Often, they work in the United States or Europe where salaries are higher and opportunities for prestige much greater.

Enrique Geffroy, a 40-year-old chemical engineer, left Mexico 11 years ago to earn a doctorate at Caltech. He went on to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he was paid about $46,000 to teach and conduct research.

Out of a sense of duty, he says, he came back to Mexico a little over a year ago and heads a laboratory at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

"I look at it as a moral decision," he says. "I saw my country struggling to compete on an international level and I wanted to participate.

"There is no way we can be business partners with the United States if our education level is much lower," he adds, referring to the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement which would eliminate all trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Even compared to other Third World countries, Mexico ranks poorly in the number of scientists working here. Mr. Yacaman says that in 1989, there were about 10 researchers per 100,000 inhabitants in Mexico, compared to 25 in Brazil and 16 in Turkey. The United States had more than 340 per 100,000.

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