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Spain’s government should be boosting research, not cutting it

Austerity policies are damaging every aspect of science in Spain, says Carlos Andradas. The country risks stunting its economic growth for years to come.

With unemployment close to 25 per cent, and one in five citizens living below the poverty line, it’s easy to see how many Spaniards might see government spending on R&D as an unaffordable luxury. However, the country’s politicians do not have that excuse.

In Spain, as in the rest of Europe, the political consensus is that social welfare and prosperity require an economy based on knowledge, research and innovation. Scientists, myself included, tend to think that when an idea is right and reasonable, it will be acted upon. So we struggle to understand why, rather than making the case for research to the public, Spain’s rulers are dismantling one of its strengths: the country’s science base.

R&D expenditure was 1.39 per cent of GDP in 2010, much less than the EU average of 2 per cent. In 2011, it fell to 1.33 per cent. Cutting the absolute budget for research in a recession is one thing. Cutting the proportion of GDP spent on R&D sends a quite different message.

The cuts are harming every aspect of research. The budget for national calls for research grants—the main source of support for Spain’s research groups—is falling by almost 20 per cent each year. The Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, which ranks third among European research institutes after the Max Planck institutes and France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, has seen its budget cut by 30 per cent in the past four years, placing the system at risk of collapse.

University funding has been cut, even though the government recently complained that no Spanish university was in the top 100 in international rankings. And interesting initiatives such as the Campus of Excellence, launched in 2009 to improve the international standing of Spain’s universities, have been cancelled.

Immense damage is being done to researchers’ careers. Until last week, nearly 1,000 prospective PhD students had been waiting for months to see if they would be funded. Retiring staff in universities and research institutes are not being replaced.

Spanish research is also becoming isolated from the international collaborations vital for individual and collective success. A programme of postdoctoral grants in universities outside Spain has been cancelled. Five years ago, international calls were used to attract exceptional academics through the Ramón y Cajal programme with the promise of a stable position. Many of them will have to continue their careers outside Spain, as they have not been offered tenure.

Under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, science has moved into the ministry of economy and competitiveness where minister Luis de Guindos is preoccupied with a bank bailout, the public deficit, and reducing public investment in the R&D system.

The government has urged researchers to seek funds from private sources or the EU. But encouraging private investment in R&D is a long-term process that requires policies to build a strong industrial and entrepreneurial base. And Spain’s researchers will only be successful in EU calls if they are part of strong and competitive groups at the national level. In any case, EU money makes up less than 10 per cent of the total R&D budgets of member states, so it cannot replace national programmes.

In fact, Spain gets slightly less out of the EU research budget than it puts in: contributing nearly 9 per cent of the total funding for Framework 7, and receiving nearly 8 per cent. One reason for this relatively poor return is that most Spanish researchers view EU projects as an administrative burden, often colliding with internal structures. For instance, the Spanish authorities have required that people hired with EU money must face the same salary reductions as workers paid through the domestic budget. This leaves those running such projects with the problem of paying these funds back or justifying their use.

Scientists do not have the strength of other groups taking to Spain’s streets, and reality has shown that it is not enough to be right and reasonable. We have failed to communicate and make visible to society the importance of science, research and innovation for our future.

What particularly baffles Spanish researchers is that, until recently, the country’s science was growing. At the turn of the millennium the country spent less than 1 per cent of GDP on R&D. At present, Spain is ranked ninth in the world by the number of scientific papers in indexed journals. If this course is reversed, it will take many years to recover, and will affect the whole economic development of Spain.

Because cutting R&D has few immediate consequences, this seems not to be understood. The real question is not how dare the Spanish talk about spending more on research, but how we can dare not to.

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Carlos Andradas is professor of mathematics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE).