Lofty Goals in Spanish Research Plan. But Very Little Money

5 February 2013 1:50 pm

BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has issued a new road map for science that sets high goals for the national research system, but researchers are disappointed that it has little new money to offer. Instead, the government hopes corporate funding will increase dramatically—which the scientific community says is not likely to happen.

The new Spanish Strategy of Science, Technology, and Innovation, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on Friday, is ambitious. Taking 2010 as the starting point, the government pledges to almost double the representation of Ph.D.-holders among the population age 25 to 34 by 2020 and increase research employment from 11.8% to 16%; raise to 10% the share of publicly-funded Spanish papers ranked among the top 5% of the most cited publications globally; increase Spain's share of European Union research funds, including a 90% increase in the number of so-called Starting Grants from the European Research Council; boost the number of patent applications by 50%; and raise the national percentage of innovative companies from 18.6% to 25%.

To achieve these goals, the government also approved a battery of new measures on Friday. They include supporting scientific talent, in particular making it easier to find jobs in both the academic and private research system, promoting interdisciplinary and collaborative research, giving elite groups and institutions dedicated funding, and improving the governance of universities and national research centers. The government also aligned its research priorities with the seven focus areas identified in Horizon 2020, the European Commission's research funding plan for 2014-2020.

The road map, which is part of a government package aiming to boost Spain's economy and competitiveness, also seeks to remedy one of the greatest ills of Spanish science: its lack of innovation.

But researchers are disappointed by the numbers on future funding, which a draft plan submitted to public consultation last fall did not contain. By 2020, the government wants Spain to spend 2% of its GDP on research—up from 1.39% in 2010. The new road map is "ignoring the fact that 2% was the government's goal for 2010 ... and that the average in the 27 EU member states today is just over 2%," Amaya Moro-Martín, an astrophysicist who is a spokesperson of the researchers' organization Investigación Digna, writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "In other words, they delay the convergence with Europe by more than a decade."

Moreover, the government wants to keep its own research budget essentially flat; it hopes that others will pick up a big part of the tab. The road map says the share of foreign research funding—primarily from the European Union—should grow from 5.7% in 2010 to 15% in 2020; it counts on the private sector to double its research funding, from 0.60% to 1.2% of GDP.

The government is counting its chickens before they are hatched, says Fernando Valladares, a plant ecologist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid who is president of the Spanish Association for Terrestrial Ecology and who, with other scientists, critically analyzed the draft strategy. "It would be highly desirable" for Spanish companies to invest in research, "but this … cannot be changed easily," Valladares says. In Spain there is no industry tradition to invest heavily in research, and in the past, government loans to promote private research and innovation have hardly been used, he says.

The government's high hopes look all the more unrealistic after several consecutive years of severe cuts, scientists say. The winners of its 2011 call for competitive research funding were announced only last month, more than a year after the original announcement was made. There is no new call under way, suggesting that the 2012 call may be skipped altogether. The government reduced the total amount of funding almost one-fifth compared with the previous year and changed the rules at the last minute to spread it over 4 years instead of 3 years. For the research groups, this has resulted "in the freeze of research projects and the firing of researchers in non-permanent positions, who may be permanently lost [from] the system," Moro-Martín writes.

It is "also a little ironic or paradoxical" that the new road map has been approved as a boost to Spain's economy "at the same time when the situation that is being lived … in the universities and research centers is almost dramatic, and a matter of survival," says Carlos Andradas Heranz, a mathematician at the Complutense University of Madrid and president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies.

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