Austere times. CSIC headquarters.

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Austere times. CSIC headquarters.

Slow Recovery for Embattled Spanish Research Agency

BARCELONA, SPAIN—Spain’s premier research agency faces years of eroded research activity and a dwindling workforce, its leadership has revealed in a grim new report. While the beleaguered Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) paints a realistic picture of its present plight, researchers say, they fault the agency for failing to substantively address its problems.

On Wednesday, after the national newspaper El País broke the story, Spain’s largest public research organization released its action plan for 2014 to 2017. As outlined by CSIC President Emilio Lora-Tamayo in the prologue, over the next 4 years the council aims to concentrate its efforts on “try[ing] to solve or at least palliate” two major threats to its 125 institutes: an aging and shrinking workforce and limited management flexibility.

The outlook could have been worse. As Spain grappled with a nationwide economic crisis over the last several years, the central government slashed CSIC’s budget repeatedly until bottoming out at €418 million in 2013, a 36% decrease from its biggest ever budget in 2008. CSIC initially coped with the belt-tightening by dipping into savings researchers had accumulated from unspent competitive grants and industry contracts. Last year, Lora-Tamayo capped spending and called on the government to rescue CSIC from imminent bankruptcy. Three months later, the government threw CSIC a lifeline, injecting €70 million into the council and upping its 2014 budget.

A chief woe for CSIC is loss of talent. Between 2011 and 2013, the council lost more than 2000 staff members, many of whom were scientists on contracts or on scholarships, from a total workforce that stood at 12,795 at the end of 2012. Positions have also declined under recent government-wide restrictions on civil servant employment that have prevented CSIC from filling most permanent research jobs as scientists retire; since 2012, the council has lost almost 50 positions a year this way. CSIC intends to resume its own recruitment program for young researchers in 2016, with plans to hire up to 50 postdocs and 100 Ph.D. students, and it will seek government approval for a new tenure-track program. It also aims to help researchers secure more grants from European and international sources. In a letter to CSIC staff yesterday, Lora-Tamayo recognized “the gravity and dimension of the [staff] problem.” He noted that there are good signs that this year the government will increase the number of entry-level permanent positions, launch a program that would award short-term contracts to distinguished researchers from Spain or abroad, and cofund postdocs. Lora-Tamayo also reassured staff that CSIC’s management will be overhauled.

Researchers are giving CSIC’s austerity plan mixed grades. “Considering the present economic situation of Spain … [the action plan] appears realistic,” writes Luis Sanz-Menéndez, director of the CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. Although CSIC will struggle to maintain scientific productivity, adds Carlos Andradas Heranz, a mathematician at the Complutense University of Madrid and president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies, the action plan “sets out a financial equilibrium that is essential for the viability of CSIC.”

While CSIC’s strategy may avert disaster, it fails to plant seeds for real change, critics say. “Unfortunately, the plan neither addresses the roots of the problems nor provides structural solutions for the [good] functioning of the research enterprise,” Sanz-Menéndez writes. One sorely needed improvement is more independence for CSIC institutes, argues Joan Guinovart, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine here: Along with more responsibility and accountability, “the institutes of CSIC lack autonomy to choose research lines and flexibility to attract scientists.”

Posted in Europe, Funding