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Billions of Spanish Research Euros Remain Unspent

28 September 2012 4:00 pm
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COSCE

Budget watcher. COSCE President Carlos Andradas Heranz.

BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government's science budget has been declining sharply for years. But the situation is even worse than the official numbers show. Billions of euros in the government's science budget were never spent, according to an analysis by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE) in a report released yesterday. Since 2008, at least €8.6 billion has remained unspentmore than the entire national science budget for 2011.

Despite furious resistance from scientists, Spain's parliament approved a long-delayed draft bill in June that lowers this year's national funding for science to €6.39 billion, about 26% less than the 2011 budget, according to the COSCE report. After having doubled between 2002 and 2008, the budget has declined since 2010, and is now back at 2005 levels.

But those figures don't even reflect the full reality. Based on public data about national spending from the Ministry of Finance and Public Administration, "the true quantity of money that has been invested … in R&D is even less than what appears in the budget bills," says COSCE President Carlos Andradas Heranz, a mathematician at the Complutense University of Madrid. In 2011, actual public spending for research was at least €3.01 billion less than allocated in the parliamentary budget; in 2010, it was €2.36 billion less. "It is clear that the system is dysfunctional," the report says.

The dysfunction stems from a Spanish peculiarity: In the national science budget, the government not only includes lump sums to public research institutes and competitive grants to research teams, but also a pot of money aimed at supporting companies, universities, and public research institutions with loans. In 2012, for example, €3.76 billion59% of the total science budgetis set to be spent on loans.

The longstanding practice was designed to fund military research with commercial potential or allow institutions to build new research infrastructure with funding they had won from the European Commission but would only get on completion of the project, Andradas explains. But the amount of money that can be absorbed this way is limited. Many Spanish companies are too small to perform R&D, says Andradas, and it doesn't make sense for public research institutions to get loans for basic research that is unlikely to make money. Moreover, public institutions need the authorization of a public authority to take on debt, which in recent years has become hard or even impossible, Andradas says.

Nonetheless, successive Spanish governments have allocated more money to the loans than to the rest of the science budget since 2005, creating a bubble of unspent funds. According to COSCE's data, the practice has allowed the government to raise the science budget significantly between 2007 and 2009 without spending much more money. When the budget started to fall in 2010, so did the spendingbut a lot more sharply. "What initially could have had a sensible justification or motivation later became a way to … maintain the budgets" and keep up appearances, Andradas says.

A spokesperson for Spain's science secretary says the government agrees with the main conclusions of the COSCE report. The bulk of the cuts to the 2012 budget were made in the loans, precisely because the government knew it would hurt the least, the spokesperson says. COSCE's report confirms this, though it remains to be seen how much of the 2012 budget will actually have been spent at the end of the year. The group now calls on the government to look closer at which funding programs are needed and effective. The government should also come up with strategies to ensure that companies actually use available loans, and future science budgets should be "in line with the reality of the country," Andradas says.

COSCE's report sought to raise the alarm about the phenomenon, but the scientific community has long been aware that the numbers were deceptive, says Luis Sanz-Menéndez, director of the CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid and chair of the Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In fact, Sanz-Menéndez criticizes COSCE for not making more noise about the issue before. He says the former science ministry -- which was merged into the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in 2011should have made sure that research funds were adequately spent and deplores the "real mismanagement" at the department.

The government's draft budget for 2013, revealed yesterday, announces an 8.9% cut across all ministries, but better management can soften the blow for research, Sanz-Menéndez says. "You can criticize the ministry because there is less money, but if they manage the budget as effectively as the other ministries do, we will have spent more" on science at the end of the year than in the past, he says.

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