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Solvent. An emergency infusion of cash is keeping the Spanish National Research Council, headquartered in Madrid, afloat.

Spain Saves Science Agency From Immediate Bankruptcy, but Strains Continue

By: 
Elisabeth Pain
2013-10-18 17:15
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The Spanish government today agreed to give the nation’s flagship research agency a €70 million ($96 million) cash injection to save it from imminent bankruptcy. Scientists are welcoming the news, but say it solves just one of the problems facing Spain’s national science system, and probably only temporarily.

The funding announcement puts an end to months of uncertainty regarding the immediate future of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). CSIC is Spain’s largest research organization, employing some 6000 researchers in more than 120 institutes that span all disciplines, from biology and materials science to the humanities. The agency began running into trouble in 2009, when its funding streams started declining much faster than expenditures, largely as a result of successive across-the-board funding cuts made by the former and current Spanish governments. At the end of June, CSIC received an extra €25 million ($34 million) from the government as part of an €104 million ($142 million) emergency package for research. Two weeks later, however, CSIC President Emilio Lora-Tamayo warned of an impending "cataclysm." Without a further cash injection of €75 million ($103 million), he said, CSIC would go into bankruptcy by the end of the year.

In July, Lora-Tamayo ordered the directors and managers of the CSIC institutes to severely slow spending and revealed that he had used the funds from research group accounts to keep the agency afloat without researchers knowing. The measures spread chaos and uncertainty among CSIC researchers; many saw their projects or travel plans grind to a halt.

With the fresh injection of funds, “the financial viability of the National Research Council is guaranteed,” states a press release from the Spanish state secretariat for research. As part of its national budget draft bill for 2014, the government also plans to increase CSIC’s annual lump sum operating funding by 12.1%, or about €50 million ($69 million). Overall, however, CSIC’s budget, which includes an estimate of how much it will generate from national and European grant competitions, remains flat.

Still, the fresh money will “allow us to approach this end of the year in a more comfortable situation,” a CSIC official tells ScienceInsider. And an internal budget plan predicts that CSIC will save €50 million in expenditures in 2013, which will help the agency return to financial balance in 2014, allowing Spain’s largest scientific organization to “continue its research activity with normality,” according to the state secretariat’s statement. Lora-Tamayo is expected to give his vision of the future on Monday.

The cash injection is “good news,” says Carlos Andradas Heranz, a mathematician at the Complutense University of Madrid who is president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies. But he wonders why the government waited so long and what the situation will be for the CSIC next year, he adds. Also: “What is very preoccupying is that there are many other problems and that they not only affect CSIC, but all the other public research organizations and all the universities. … These [problems] remain unsolved.”

In particular, he notes that the government has yet to issue this year’s competitive call for research and infrastructure projects, and a long promised research funding agency has not materialized. Even though the 2014 draft budget bill calls for increasing spending on civilian research (by €128 million, or $175 million), Andradas Heranz predicts that funding pressures will continue. “Next year we will be in a similar situation,” he says.

To demonstrate their concerns, yesterday scientists at many public research organizations and universities held “a mourning day for science.” Unless the government boosts research spending, the demonstrators argued in a statement, Spain’s science system will face “a scarcity of resources that brings us backwards by almost a decade.”

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