A map of Spain's most valuable landscapes, produced by researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, one of the institutions the panel says should be reformed.

Spanish National Research Council

A map of Spain's most valuable landscapes, produced by researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, one of the institutions the panel says should be reformed.

Spain needs 'major cultural change' to do better in science, international panel says

BARCELONA, SPAIN—More cash and many profound structural changes—that, according to a panel of European experts, is what Spain's national science and innovation system needs to become more competitive.

A full report will be issued later, but on Thursday, the group released a six-page document containing its key messages. It says the Spanish government should raise its contribution to science and innovation to 0.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and argues for the creation of a national funding agency that gives out merit-based grants, more autonomy for the universities, and a major overhaul of Spain's national research centers. Above all, what is needed is a stronger culture of evaluation and accountability, even if it means increasing inequality between universities, the document says.

The report was put together at the request of the Spanish government by a peer-review panel of the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC), chaired by Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

The report acknowledges “islands of excellence” in Spain, in particular a fleet of recently created research institutes that enjoy greater autonomy. But it deplores the “low” performance of the Spanish science system as a whole. The system's main ills, it says, are fragmented governance, insufficient mobility of people and knowledge across institutions, a lack of effective science policies and research performance evaluations, and the private sector's meager R&D contribution.

At the top of the panel's recommendations is to increase public spending for research to 0.7% of GDP over the next 3 years; now, according to a recent report from the Foundation for Technological Innovation, it stands at 0.61%, compared with 0.72% on average in the European Union and 0.97% in Germany. But the increase must come with a sustainable 10-year national spending strategy, so that institutes can plan their activities ahead; the institutions in turn must see the increase as an incentive to meet predetermined targets and implement structural changes.

"The most pressing problem,” according to the group, is the human resources pipeline. Due to a near-total freeze on hiring, staff members at Spain's research institutions are aging. To give young talent a career path, Spain could provide incentives for the retirement of senior researchers and introduce the tenure-track positions that were promised in the 2011 science law and again in the 2013 to 2020 science strategy. (Amid Spain's economic crisis, they never materialized.) The report also calls for a “radical change” in the civil service to foster staff mobility, reward excellence, and promote the best researchers to leadership positions quickly.

The panel says there is “an urgent need” to create a national research agency that distributes competitive grants and fellowships based on independent and international peer review—another unfulfilled government promise. National research organizations should be reorganized by merging some of them with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and some CSIC institutes should be relocated to universities, the panel says. Research institutions and universities should have more autonomy and become more accountable. The panel suggests that Spain initiates such “a major cultural change” by allocating 10% of its national funding on the basis of institutional assessments through international peer review.

“Some hard choices may be needed here," the panel acknowledges, "including a review of international commitments … and accepting that funding may concentrate in the best performing institutions.” The former would likely raise eyebrows elsewhere in Europe, where Spain has repeatedly gotten in trouble for not paying what it had pledged for international projects. Tying core funding to institutional performance would also likely be met with resistance.

Spanish science secretary of state Carmen Vela welcomed the recommendations, Europa Press reported on Thursday. Raising public spending to 0.7% of GDP is “ambitious but reasonable,” she said. When it asked ERAC for the review, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees science, pledged to incorporate the recommendations in the government’s 2015 reforms. But on Thursday, Vela revealed little in the way of concrete new measures.

Spanish scientists are skeptical that true change will come. “The suggested reforms require stable investment and political will, and both are lacking,” writes astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martín of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “Many of the recommendations in this report were already made by the science community in an open letter that ended up taped to the closed gates of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness,” says Moro-Martín, who recently returned to the United States after spending several years in the grassroots movement to improve Spanish science. Moro-Martín, who would like to see even more sweeping changes herself, notes that all parties in the Spanish Congress of Deputies signed an agreement in December to implement several of the panel's prescriptions—except the ruling Partido Popular.

“The good news for the Spanish government is that even in a crisis context, these reforms can be done,” writes Joan Guinovart, the director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, in an e-mail. “No more words are needed, now … is the time to apply the recommendations.”

Posted in Europe, Funding, Policy