Spanish Sea Research Consortium in Peril

High interest rates on a loan may scuttle plans to create an international center of excellence in marine research in southern Spain. If ongoing talks don't succeed within a week, the proposed collaboration could lose its €4.8 million in funding from Spain's national government.

On 21 October, the would-be network, coordinated by the University of Cádiz, was awarded a €4.8 million grant from the International Campus of Excellence (CEI) funding program. Launched in 2008, that program is an initiative by the Spanish Ministry of Education to modernize the country's universities by encouraging them to form strategic alliances. The 2011 funding round awarded a total of €35 million to eight new CEIs and gave 11 existing ones an additional €40 million.

But on 11 November, the rector of the University of Cádiz, Eduardo González Mazo raised the alarm. According to the program's regulations, the regional government of the winning centers receives the money from the Spanish government in the form of loans, which used to be interest-free. Because of Spain's fiscal pinch, the loans come with a 5.7% interest rate this year, which the regional government of Andalusia, which sponsors the project, says is too high. Moreover, to enter the loan agreement, regional governments must meet certain fiscal health criteria; González Mazo told the journalists he was "deeply preoccupied" about the center's funding because the national Ministry of Economy and Finance might not allow Andalusia to take out the loan.

Pulling together the new marine network, called the International Campus of Excellence of the Sea (CEIMAR), has taken 2 years. The group encompasses the southern universities of Cádiz, Almeria, Huelva, Granada, and Malaga, the University of the Algarve in Portugal, and Abdelmalek Essaâdi University in Morocco, as well as the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, the Spanish National Research Council, and other centers. Thirty-seven foreign universities signed an agreement to collaborate and several companies are also onboard.

There are already three CEIs for marine science elsewhere in Spain. But a failure for the University of Cádiz's project would be "tragic," mathematician Björn Birnir, of the collaborating University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "Mediterranean studies will suffer," he says. "Cádiz has made a name for itself in studying phytoplankton, fish species with marine farming potential, and the effects of pollutants."

The ministry and the regional government have one more week to resolve the problem before the money is redistributed to other consortia. Both parties have reiterated their support to CEIMAR, and González Mazo says he still has high hopes that, one way or another, funding will come through. "We are very excited and have a lot of desire to start working," he says.

Posted in Environment, Europe, Funding