Spain poised to chop science spending

25 Nov 2009 | News
As the Spanish government prepares to take on the EU Presidency, proposed cuts to its national R&D budget could undermine the EU’s innovation rhetoric.

The Spanish government is poised to cut public funding for research and development by about 15 per cent in its 2010 budget, due to be published in the middle of December.

Spanish scientists fear that if the cut takes effect, confidence in the Spanish scientific system could be weakened, undermining efforts made over the past ten years to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy.

With the country in recession, an isolated reduction in the science budget would not be that worrying if Spain had a mature innovation system, says physiologist José López-Barneo, Director of the CIBERNED (Centro Investigacion Biomedica en Red Enfermedades Neurodegenerativas), which specialises in research in neurodegenerative diseases. 

But Spain has an exhausted economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and construction, two sectors that have been badly affected both by the recession and the property bubble. If the country wants to leave behind its old model, it needs to maintain investment in knowledge creation and innovation. “But when things go bad, it seems that a common practice in Spain is to cut spending in science, education and culture,” says López-Barneo.

The final budget for scientific research will be announced in mid-December when the overall budget is finally approved by the Spanish Parliament. As of now, a total of €5.4 billion will go into the Ministry of Science and Innovation. Some areas, such as loans for technology-based companies, are likely to fare are better than last year. But public research organisations, such as CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas) with more than 14,000 scientists employed all over Spain, will take a big hit, with funding cuts of up to 10 per cent.

As a consequence, the CIBERNED network, an off-shoot of the publicly-funded Carlos III Health Institute, is braced for a daunting cut of up to 30 per cent. However, López-Barneo acknowledges that the network has received enough resources since it was formed three years ago to survive one lean year.

“The problem would come if these cuts mark the beginning of a trend to shrink science funding,” says Jose María Valpuesta, director of the Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia (CNB), which also depends on the Science Ministry for its funding.

Spain is trying to catch up with its counterparts in European and elsewhere in the quality of its science, while also trying to push innovation. “But the message that the cut would be sending to the Spanish people and to European countries, particularly now that Spain is going to take over the presidency in the EU, isn’t too good”, says Valpuesta.

One option for publicly-funded institutes is to seek funding from the private sector and the European Union. The CNB, for example, a competitive public research organisation, gets about 30 per cent of its funding from the EU, and this income will not be altered next year. But, “We’ll probably see cuts in money for buying new equipment,” says Valpuesta.

While Cristina Garmendia, Minister for Science and Innovation, has declared herself unhappy with the current budget proposal, she is confident there will be enough resources to keep scientific research functioning until the good times roll once more. And with unemployment standing at 18 per cent, there is irresistible pressure to shift resources to social security.

Before the crisis hit, public expenditure on R&D was growing. According to Eurostats, in 2000, a mere 0.91 per cent of Spain’s GDP went into science and technology. In 2004, it was 1.06 per cent. More recent data from the Spanish Employment Institute indicates that in 2008 the figure stood at 1.35 per cent, with a total of €14.7 billion going into science-related activities last year. 

As things stand, most of the programmes in Spain’s National R&D Plan, the main funding source for basic science, seem to be safe from cuts. Money for the CONSOLIDER programmes, one of the primary sources of financial support for high-quality research, has been secured and will remain intact at about €36 million.

For now, the parliamentary discussions continue to grind. Budget numbers continue to change and the scientific community is as expectant as it is confused, by figures that shift from one moment to the next.

Reform of funding could deliver more value

While money is important, the general opinion of the scientific community is that what Spain needs – more than increased funding – is a flexible structure for its scientific system. At the moment, researchers and university professors at government public organisations are hired as civil servants, which makes it difficult for top foreign researchers to be recruited.

“Such a system favours social stability in the short term, but does not favour the competition that research needs,” says López-Barneo.

Within the past decade, a new type of self-governing research centre has been established, with freedom to hire scientists and allocate public and private money as they see fit. These include the Centre for Genomic Regulation (Centre de Regulació Genòmica) in Barcelona, the National Centre for Oncology Research (Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas) in Madrid and the Principe Felipe Research Institute (Institituto de Investigación Principe Felipe) in Valencia.

The centres are managed through their own foundations and do have the same limitations as public research organisations. “More than 40 per cent of our staff are foreign [nationals] and we are trying to increase the proportion to 70 per cent,” says Miguel Beato, director of the Genomic Regulation Centre.

Valpuesta concedes that there are plenty of bureaucratic obstacles for public research organisations in trying to attract highly-qualified researchers. It is difficult to offer them a good starting package of salary and research funding. “We have to fight a lot more than foundation-managed centres to get the same results,” he says.

Some scientists argue the ideal system would be centred on independent grant-giving research agencies, like the Research Councils in the UK or the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany, which have political independence and self-governance. 

“Public funding is not bad but we need a different structure that allows incentives. Otherwise, increased public expenditure could be wasted,” says Beato. “Science is an elitist field and the system should be able to reward the best scientists – and if need be – to make those who are not performing well redundant,” he adds.

Lack of private money

Another problem in Spain is the low percentage of R&D investment coming from the business sector. The Lisbon Treaty has the objective of spending at least 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D by 2010, with two thirds financed by the business sector.  Spain is far from this goal, with 1.35 per cent of GDP going to science, of which only 45 per cent comes from industry. “In Germany almost 70 per cent of R&D investment comes from the private sector,” Beato notes.

It is not by chance that Germany has been the first country to recover from the crisis. German companies can develop unique products, based on years of original patents and a huge commitment to research and technology.  And while Germany has cut spending for the next for year in some areas, it has increased the science budget. Similarly, in the US and France, one reaction to recession has been to increase spending on scientific research.

The factor that has undermined Spanish R&D policies since the 1980s is that civil servants and politicians with economic responsibility have never fully believed that science and technology are factors that push social and economic development, according to Emilio Muñoz, a professor in science, technology and society studies at CSIC, and a former CSIC chairman between 1988-1991.

Scientists in Spain are braced for the cut, and hoping that if it happens it will be a one-off reduction in 2010. However, they perceive a lack of agreement between political parties on the importance of securing investment in science and technology in the long term to build a more robust economy. “Politicians need to understand that science is essential for the strong growth of Spain,” López-Barneo concludes.

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