Bilaterial collaboration threatened by Republican candidate’s stance on border wall

Climate change is one key area on which the American and Mexican scientific communities need to collaborate on, according to experts at a US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) roundtable discussion on scientific cooperation held earlier this month in Washington, DC. However, the president of the NAS, Marcia McNutt, warned that a Donald Trump presidency could hinder such bilateral cooperation.

‘As the climate changes … animals need to move northward,’ explained McNutt, a geophysicist who directed the US Geological Survey (USGS) from 2010 to 2013. While at the USGS, she said the agency was asked by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to advise on how a fence along the US–Mexico border might affect animals’ migration. ‘My USGS scientists said it is not a good thing,’ McNutt recalled. ‘These animals are already under stress from climate change, and if you impede their motion, it is even worse – it’s an additional stressor.’ Trump vowed to build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico to help control illegal immigration, at Mexico’s expense, when he announced his candidacy in June.

Ultimately, the USGS informed the Fish and Wildlife Service that ‘migration corridors’ would have to be identified for these animals in order to prevent them from facing greater harm through climate change, McNutt said. As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Service brought an injunction against the US Department of Homeland Security against fences along the US–Mexico border, she recounted.

Beyond climate change, participants at the roundtable also identified the need for American and Mexican scientists to increase collaboration on major biodiversity initiatives.

On the Horizon

While serving as director of the USGS, McNutt said she was heavily involved in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010. The accident killed 11 workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was almost 90 days before the well was capped, at which point an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil had leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

‘I regret now that we didn’t involve Mexican scientists in our Deepwater Horizon active work,’ McNutt said. She urged the US and Mexico to work much more closely in the Gulf region. ‘This is our shared ocean,’ McNutt said. ‘Deepwater Horizon won’t be the last disaster we face in this body of water.’

Mexico has come a long way over the last two decades from being a closed market dependent on oil to becoming an important world export economy, according to Alberto Fierro, the current counsellor for culture and education at the Mexican Embassy to the US. In terms of Mexican higher education and research, he told the roundtable that these past 20 years have seen a ‘huge transformation’ from just a few graduate programmes and research centres at a small number of select Mexican universities to more than 2000 graduate programmes of excellence.

However, Fierro cautioned: ‘We are still far from having the amount of scholar and student exchange that reflects our very strong bilateral relationship’. He noted that only 17,000 Mexican graduate students are currently in the US. That amount of scientific academic exchange with the US is ‘very small’ when compared to smaller countries like Taiwan or South Korea, and when one considers the roughly $500 billion (£410 billion) in trade between the US and Mexico, Fierro said.

Jaime Urrutia Fucugauchi, president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, agreed that there are many areas where the two countries can collaborate, including on academic exchange programmes, particularly for young researchers and students. At the roundtable, he said science is ‘a global enterprise,’ but cautioned that scientific advances and innovation are ‘widening the gap’ between the developed and the developing world.

‘Nations with small scientific communities, poor infrastructure, inadequate educational systems – many countries they are lagging behind, unable to join these transformations and participate,’ Fucugauchi stated. He suggested that national science academies play a crucial role in promoting and developing science, but pointed out that many of the poorer countries are still trying to build their own science academies.