Native Son Returns to Guide Catalonia's Research Through Spain's Troubled Economy

Noted mathematical economist Andreu Mas-Colell, who resigned his position as secretary general of the European Research Council (ERC) last September, is returning to his native Catalonia to help the region through the economic turmoil enveloping Spain. In January, he was appointed head of Catalonia's newly created economy and knowledge department, which will now have authority over the region's economic policies, its research and development strategies, and its universities. Mas-Colell faces a difficult task, as Catalonia is more than €10 billion in debt.

"There's a fiscal problem at the regional, Spanish, and, I would say, European level that forces us to a retrenchment in our budget that will affect many aspects of public services, including universities and research," Mas-Colell tells ScienceInsider. The economist can't promise that cuts won't be made to research funding, but he believes that placing the region's universities and its R&D centers within the new department will highlight their importance to the economy and may provide some advantages for science during these lean times. "We will be able to fine-tune the type of policies that ensure the good operation of research," he says.

The current situation of science in Catalonia is not bad, Mas-Colell says. "For example, it has been very successful in scientific terms as measured by the number of the highly competitive ERC grants obtained in the region in the last call," he says. "Now we need to ensure the continuity of the current policies and funding."

In the 2010 ERC Advanced Grant competition, seven out of 13 grants awarded to senior-level researchers in Spain went to ones at Catalonian research centers such the International Center for Numerical Methods in Engineering (CINME) and the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, both in Barcelona. One of the reasons for such success, according to Mas-Colell, is that many Catalan research centers have more flexible management policies than the ones run by the Spanish National Research Council, which are under the umbrella of Spain's Science and Innovation Ministry and are often stifled in red tape. Historically, many permanent scientific positions at Spanish universities and research institutions are within the civil service system, a situation that many in Spain argue reduces competitiveness among the nation's scientific community as the civil service offers few incentives to excellence and productivity. "Many Catalan centres don't hire scientists as civil servants," Mas-Colell notes.

The former Harvard University professor points out that research centres in other Spanish regions with similar flexibility in their hiring policies, such as the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid, are also producing a lot of good science. "From an outside point of view, it's clear the type of centre which gives better results," Mas-Colell states.

Another characteristic of the Catalonian research centers is that they have a close relationship with universities, Mas-Colell says—all of the centers have university representation on their boards, "The centers generate scientific and economic resources for the university, and together they create a bigger critical mass of staff and resources," he explains.

With his new job, Mas-Colell is returning to the Catalonia regional government (and to his Barcelona birthplace). From 2000 to 2003, he was the Catalan Minister of Universities, Research and Information Society. During that time, in 2000, he secured the funds for the creation of a program, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), designed to attract top-notch senior scientists to the region. Modeled in the image of Anglo-Saxon tenure track programs, ICREA offers competitive permanent contracts, but it has received some criticism by scientists because it does not provide dedicated money for researchers to start-up a new lab, as often is offered elsewhere. Mas-Colell defends the program as the best that Catalonia can afford. "Sure, the start-up package would go well. But we have the resources that we have. The philosophy of ICREA is that the program gives employment stability and salary to the researcher, but the rest has to be put by the host institution," he says. "This is a way to make sure that the host institution is really committed to the scientist's project and doesn't take advantage of the researcher's own resources; it can't be free, it needs to cost something to the institution." One sign that ICREA is working for Catalonia: Many of its researchers have been awarded with ERC grants. (Thirty-two percent of the winning proposals from Spain, and 57% of those from Catalonia, were submitted by ICREA researchers.)

But what about younger scientists, from Catalonia or the rest of Spain, who have gone abroad to develop their talents? They don't qualify for ICREA, and many of them complain about the difficulties of going back to Spain. The Ramon y Cajal (RyC) program, created by the Spanish Central Administration with the goal of attracting international young researchers, does offer 5-year contracts, but the subsequent permanent jobs available to RyC investigators are few and, often, within the civil service system. Mas-Colell says it makes sense for Spain's central government to focus on recruiting young scientists and for the regions, such as Catalonia, to focus on offering more permanent jobs at universities and local research centers. But if the current system still does not succeed in recruiting enough young, talented scientists, the economist does not dismiss the possibility of Catalonia creating an ICREA-like program for more junior scientists.

Posted in Europe