If Donald Trump thinks all Mexican migrants are criminals, it’s because he hasn’t met the likes of Pablo Meyer, a computational biologist, or Enrico Ramirez Ruiz, an astrophysicist.
They are two of the thousands of Mexicans with doctorates who’ve left their homeland, mostly for the United States, in a brain drain that saps Mexican academia of super-hot minds.
Some of them sought jobs in Mexico and couldn’t find them, securing slots instead on the faculties of U.S. universities. Others long to return. Still others did come back, only to get fed up with bureaucracy or disgusted by crime and return to the United States, where academia and industry recognize talent without regard to citizenship.
It’s the flip side of presidential candidate Trump’s calls for higher border walls to keep Mexican immigrants out. Highly skilled Mexicans also travel north and are met with open arms. By one estimate, 11,000 Mexicans with doctoral degrees reside and work in the United States. Another estimate says 27 percent of all Mexicans who hold such degrees work north of the border.
The United States reaps clear benefit from such an exodus.
I’m bitter because I love Mexico.
Pablo Meyer, who found work in New York state.
“Americans are free riders in terms of Mexican brains,” said Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, a Mexican historian at the University of Chicago who got his master’s and doctorate at Stanford University in California.
One of those brains resides in the head of Pablo Meyer, 38, whose academic path led him from Mexico to France and on to Rockefeller University in New York City, where he got a doctorate delving into the mysteries of gene sequencing. His PhD in hand, Meyer arrived back in Mexico to look for a job. He went to the National Medicine and Genomics Institute, the Institute of Cellular Physiology and to the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute.
“There were no open positions,” Meyer recalled. “Older people were not retiring and there was no funding for new positions.”
Recognizing Meyer’s sharp intellect, the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, part of IBM Research, hired him for a research position at its lab in Yorktown, N.Y., where he studies metabolic networks and is part of a team with a patent pending.
With parents and siblings back in Mexico, Meyer still harbors dreams of his homeland but also anger at what he considers an incoherent policy toward science.
“I’m bitter because I love Mexico,” Meyer said. “It’s just a feeling of a lack of vision in the science field. There’s not a clear political will for it.”
Enrico Ramirez Ruiz has dreams, too, but of a different sort. An astrophysicist, Ramirez, 39, passed through the doors of Cambridge and Princeton universities, and now teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He’s the youngest person ever elected to the Mexican Academy of Sciences.
Ramirez dreams that Mexico may reap more Nobel Prizes in science beyond the 1995 prize in chemistry won by Mario Molina, a chemist.
27 percentage of Mexican PhDs who work in the U.S.
Rather than “brain drain,” Ramirez favors the terminology of “brain circulation.” He puts into practice what he preaches. He mentors Mexican graduate students, nurturing them at the Santa Cruz campus and on trips to Mexico, traveling often. Currently, his group comprises three post-doctoral students and three other graduate students, all astronomers.
“We want to generate the next Nobel Prizes,” Ramirez said, without a trace of immodesty, “but Nobel Prizes who work in Mexico.”
That’s the hard part – getting jobs, equipping laboratories and keeping scholars in Mexico.
President Enrique Peña Nieto pledges to boost government spending on science and technology to the equivalent of one percent of the gross national product by the end of his term in 2018. It’s barely over half a percentage point now.
The sprawling National Autonomous University of Mexico, considered the biggest and perhaps the best university in the Spanish-speaking world, has 229,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It draws science, engineering and medical students from around the hemisphere.
Other universities in Mexico’s largest cities routinely send their best students on to Ivy League universities in the United States and top universities in Europe.
Still, scientists who have left Mexico, and educational experts who study the exodus, see Mexico’s universities as part of the problem. Bureaucracy, politics and government pressures all constrain research at Mexican universities.
“You don’t have enough money to buy materials and chemicals to do your work. Sometimes, you don’t have the time to do your work,” said Jesús Velasco, a political scientist now at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, who has written extensively about the brain drain.
Jorge Soberón, a theoretical ecologist, abandoned a 30-year academic career in Mexico City a few years ago to take a senior post at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Of the top 10 people in my class, I would say 80 percent went abroad for a PhD, and of those, I can think of only one who went back to Mexico.
Eva Noyola, University of Texas.
“Moving from Mexico City to Lawrence in Kansas was very different in terms of stress and traffic,” Soberón said. “The entire city of Lawrence could fit in the Estadio Azteca,” the Mexican capital’s main soccer arena, which can accommodate 95,000.
Soberón said he tired of university bureaucracy in Mexico.
“You have to be on many more committees,” he said, and administrators make heavy paperwork demands on professors. “They have to produce stupid reports. . . . There’s absolutely no trust. . . . If you (say you) are on the committees of 20 students, (you hear), ‘okay, prove it.’”
For scientists like himself, there was an added problem.
“If you are an experimental scientist and you need to get reactives, it’s much more of a hassle to get them in Mexico. It can take weeks. You have to deal with Customs,” he said.
Since he moved to Kansas, other Mexican academics are pestering him.
“I have friends calling me. ‘How did you do it? How can I do it?’” he said.
Experts are quick to point out that rather than a stampede of highly-skilled Mexicans to the United States, what unfolds is a steady flow of younger academics, many of whom do post-graduate work abroad and decide to stay.
“People live their lives while they are graduate students. Sometimes, they get married or have kids,” said Alma Maldonado, an educational researcher who estimates that a third of Mexican PhDs live in the United States.
Even a general improvement in what Mexican academics can earn in Mexico hasn’t helped.
“The basic salary that the university gives you is very low, but almost everyone gets extra compensation from the National System of Research, and it can double or triple your salary,” said Gabriel Gasque, a biophysicist who now works in San Francisco.
Gasque and his wife, also a Mexican scientist, have been in the States for a decade. He said he feels pangs about Mexico even as jobs keep them in California.
“I wish I could give Mexico something back,” Gasque said, adding that he is concerned about the large diaspora of Mexican scientists.
“I absolutely think it is a tragedy,” Gasque said.
Many of those sent abroad go with the support of the powerful National Council of Science and Technology, which grants about 6,000 scholarships a year for students to study abroad, mostly at the graduate level. Many students never return.
“Of the top 10 people in my class, I would say 80 percent went abroad for a PhD, and of those, I can think of only one who went back to Mexico,” said Eva Noyola, an astronomer who left Mexico for a post at the observatory at the University of Texas in Austin.
“They put a lot of money into making me the academic that I am, and they didn’t get it back,” Noyola added.
Criminal mayhem is another factor pushing some academics out of Mexico.
“There are many scholars who left Mexico for security reasons. My case is one of them,” said Velasco, the Texas political scientist.
His former wife was victim of an attempted kidnapping. Luckily, she broke away from the gunman, although he chased her with a pistol, Velasco said.
“The next day, I started looking for a job in the United States,” he said.
Tenorio, the historian at the University of Chicago, was born and raised in a small city in Michoacan state surrounded in the family home by 3,000 books. He noted that 1.5 million people of Mexican origin live in Chicago.
“It’s more Mexico than where I was born,” he said.
Tenorio dismissed as “a disgrace” Trump’s recent remarks labeling Mexican migrants as criminals and rapists.
“If you’ve never run into a smart Mexican, you have to be trying really hard,” said Tenorio, whose resume contains more than 10 pages of book chapters, articles, essays and reviews he’s published.
Tenorio said he would like top U.S. universities to offer more joint tenured positions with Mexican universities so that scholars could spend six months a year on each side of the border.
Soberón concurred that the “brain drain” is sapping Mexico of potential for innovation, discovery and research, and that “It’s not good for Mexico to have so many highly trained people on the outside.”
Added Gasque: “It elevates the prestige of Mexico knowing that there are Mexican scientists at MIT or Harvard or Stanford or UCSF. But it would be better if they were back in Mexico.”