by Joel Abraham Enríquez *
U.S. remittances have for years exceeded receipts from oil exports and foreign tourism as a source of foreign currency in Mexico. Notably, in 2020 and 2021, with power oil prices on the ropes and reduced international travel to our sun-drenched playas, remittances are more important than ever for Mexico, hitting new record levels every month.
We tend to imagine that our paisanos—fellow nationals who emigrated massively in the 80s and 90s—are exclusively behind these transfers; however, the picture is more revealing. Mexican immigration to the United States has, according to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, reversed since 2011. Immigration has been reduced but also transformed, it now includes highly skilled workers; artist, scientists, computer science engineers, soccer player, multilanguage tourism managers and researchers who emigrate to the United States in droves in the last decade. Today, they continue to interact economically and even invest back in Mexico, contributing to these remittances.
As it is, Mexico continues to experience a massive loss of talent, the so-called “brain drain,” to the United States. Mexico has more than 30,000 nationals holding Ph.D. degrees—one-third of this high skilled population currently lives in the United States. For the most part, they were educated in Mexico, and many of them obtained graduate degrees with the support of the Mexican government with scholarships to study in U.S. universities.
Some of Mexico’s best minds are a considerable contribution to the North American economy, and to the scientific and artistic community. Their achievements are certainly a global contribution, but their absence from Mexico deprives young Mexican students of crucial examples and mentors in our labs, workshops, and academia to continue the virtuous circle.
We have outstanding examples of such minds. Take Mario Molina, the 1995 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, who won for his work on the chlorofluorocarbon threat to the Earth’s ozone layer; he sadly passed away in 2020 and lived his last days teaching at the University of California, San Diego. Consider Mexican filmmakers; they have won seven Academy Awards within the last decade, including four best-director awards. Alejandro González Iñárritu (twice), Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón advance the North American soft power in the world. In the sports field, just to give an example, Carlos Vela playing for the LA Galaxy, has been recognized as the top scorer and player in the MLS, which is the sport with the highest growth of fans in the US in a league that is rapidly becoming relevant worldwide.
But to be fair, we cannot stop applauding, missing and paying tribute to the millions of Mexicans that contribute every day with their talent to North America´s wealth and prosperity.
A significant factor driving Mexican “brains” away is Mexico’s low research and development support. In 2020, Mexico invested only 0.33 percent of its gross domestic product in research and development. Developed countries like South Korea and the United States devoted 3.45% and 2.85%, respectively. Whereas developing countries like Brazil and Argentina respectively allocate 1.25% and 0.61%.
Mexico should retain and re-shore our talented and skilled diaspora back home. Some of the best-educated Mexicans suggest that the lack of high-level research programs and other quality-of-life issues were further incentives to leave. Dr. Efrén González, Director at the Harvard Children’s Hospital, and a good friend of mine, told me a few years ago that: “There is not enough leading research in my field in Mexico.” He also said: “I love Mexico, but at this moment, I have no real career options back home.”
Mexico must gradually, yet with no delay, increase national investment in R&D to 2% of our GDP. High R&D investment has a strong correlation with real growth rate; it increases economic complexity and development. According to Harvard´s CID director, economist Ricardo Hausmann: “It is not worth recording R&D money as an investment if it is to be squandered on initiatives that won’t pay off.” R&D spending alone is a loose approximation for development. The other causation factor is “brains” —human capital and talent—that could seize and foster these investments.
A 2% GDP increase, together with the creation of new research institutions—in accordance with National Public Scientific and Development (CONACYT) recommendations—would statistically improve our talent retention and creation capabilities. This would then unfold our national economic growth and rebalance our influence within a North American context.
Mexico must create the incentives to bring back part of our high-skilled diaspora to North America. CONACYT should immediately restore support to Mexican graduate students through scholarships to study, with a broad regional geopolitical agreement with our northern neighbors, at U.S. and Canadian universities. But above all, Mexico needs to invest and offer these students an exciting life and career back home that would almost guarantee their reinsertion in our country with a guaranteed research project or a challenging job.
* Joel Abraham Enríquez is Chief Governance Officer (CGO) & Corporate Affairs at Jaguar Exploration and Production, responsible for strategic communications, legal counsel, security, CSR & BC. He is also a member of the Young Advisory Council of The US-Mexico Foundation, a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant.