Spanish science needs a new structure

20 Oct 2010 | News
In the second part of its series looking at science in Spain, Science|Business looks at how facing up to budget cuts has put the spotlight on structural reform.

Research budgets are facing the chop in Spain, but many among the scientific community believe the biggest problem facing Spanish science is not finance - which is of course important - but the rigidities of the country’s scientific infrastructure.

Jose Luis López Barneo, physiology professor at Sevilla University, is not particularly optimistic about change happening now. “We missed the right time, when the Spanish economy was doing well, between 2000 and 2008, to make the structural reforms to create a robust system,” he believes.

Those reforms, which would optimise available resources, include the introduction of a scientific career based on principles of merit and a funding agency independent of political influence.

Now the axe has fallen on the science budget, reform seems the best way forward, to get the most out of the money that is available. “If we cannot touch investment, at least we could improve systems, processes and laws,” says Alfons Sauquet, Dean of ESADE business school in Barcelona.

While a new law relating to science is currently before the Spanish parliament, there are many who do not believe this tackles the shortcomings of the system. At the heart of the problem is the civil service operating model in public research organisations and universities, which makes it impossible to fire unproductive scientists and fails to incentivise excellent scientists.

One of the biggest obstacles to changing this is the total opposition from trade unions, says Emilio Muñoz, professor of science, technology and society at CSIC’s Philosophy Institute in Madrid and former CSIC president (1988-1991).

Autonomous centres needed

Centres managed through public foundations, such as Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (CNIO) or the Centre for Genomic Regulation (Centre de Regulació Genòmica – CRG), are good examples of how a more modern governance system can make a better use of resources, helping institutions to become internationally competitive in a relatively short period of time and with a limited budget.

For example, half of the ten Advanced European Research Council grants secured by Spanish institutions in the 2008-09 call went to investigators based at CNIO, an institution founded as recently as 1998.

The budget CNIO receives per investigator from the Ministry of Science is similar to that of the Spanish National Research Council (Centro Superior de Investigaciones Científicas - CSIC), at around €40,000 per year. But, says CNIO’s Director Mariano Barbacid, “CNIO can decide how to use its money, it can hire technicians, buy equipment or upgrade its infrastructures, a flexibility not available to the public research organisations such as CSIC.”

“Also, CNIO faculty, which are not hired as civil servants, have been able to obtain significant levels of competitive financing from the EU and to attract philanthropic funding, an area in which Spain lags behind most European countries,” Barbacid said.

In terms of funding, CNIO is for now maintaining its budget, “The current budget won’t affect us negatively, I understand that we’ll stay at 2010 level, including the 5 per cent cut in salaries [in the budget],” Barbacid told Science|Business.

CNIO is in an ongoing process of transforming its basic research programme, “Experimental Therapeutics Programme” into a public company to commercialise PI3K (Phosphoinositide Kinase-3) inhibitors it has discovered. This model will allow CNIO Therapeutics to form a join venture with a private company, whilst maintaining complete control of its operations, since the CNIO Foundation will retain a 99 per cent stake. “With this model in place, we will be able to operate almost as a private company,” says Barbacid.

Prevalence of the old-boy network

The lack of an open, transparent and merit-based recruitment system is another of the ills of universities and research in Spanish. This, together with scientists having permanent jobs as civil servants, is seen as resulting in a general lack of competitiveness. To overcome this, centres like the CRG have modelled their hiring policies on those used at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. So, for example, group leaders can stay a maximum of 9 years, with an evaluation after the first 4-5 years. After this, the scientist has to find a permanent position elsewhere, “If, after 9 years with the resources we provide, they haven’t made themselves a name in their research field, this says something,” Serrano believes.

Ignacio Cirac, the Spanish physicist who is currently director of the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Physics in Garching, Germany, thinks that Spain needs better mechanisms to reincorporate scientists who have been trained abroad back into the Spanish system, to encourage them to come home, “at a relatively young age.”

Independent scientific council

Many Spanish scientists think that the lack of independent scientific advisors to the government is part of the problem and recommend the creation an independent Scientific Council. One possible role model is the German Wissenschaftsrat, which dates back from 1957, suggests Javier López-Facal, researcher at CSIC’s Philosophy Institute in Madrid. “It would be better if this body was accountable to Parliament, or the Government as a whole, rather than one Ministry, and its members should be proposed by universities and public research centres,” said López-Facal.

Lack of continuity

Continuity is something that Spanish scientists have also found missing in the country’s R&D policies. “Improvising when making policies is a national ill,” says Serrano. Any new government changes the previous policy, and it is almost impossible to know what will happen in a year’s time, he adds.

“One cannot expect that money that has been properly invested now [in R&D will] provide returns in the short term, but this is the what politicians don’t understand –nothing that cannot be shown in four years time is worth it for them,” says Jose Mari Valpuesta, director of CSIC’s National Centre for Biotechnology (Centro Nacional de Biotecnología – CNB).

Also, since the Science Ministry was created thirty years ago it has been moved three times, and since 2000, it has had 7 different ministers, points out López-Facal.

The “Coffee for Everyone” problem (or diluted funding)

Another of the problems in Spanish R&D policies is the “coffee for everyone” mindset, which distributes funding thinly to too many groups, leaving less money for good scientific groups. “If you dilute money so much it’s difficult to make an impact, so maybe not all research groups should have funding,” Serrano says.

Joan Guinovart, director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Barcelona, thinks there are, “Too many different programmes that scientists can try and ask for money: Every new government sets up its own programmes to add to the previous ones. But money could be more useful if it was more concentrated,” Guinovart believes.

In addition, Spanish universities perform badly in international rankings and urgently need to change if they are to guarantee a good education for future scientists. “One of the problems is the rigidity in the structure of the Spanish university structure,” says Muñoz. So for example, Spanish universities don’t have politically independent governing boards, as in the UK.

Prioritising investment

Many experts think that it’s important to prioritise where Spain invests, particularly at a moment of tight budgets. For example, Anton Costas, an expert in economic policy at Barcelona University thinks that the construction of high velocity AVE trains lines doesn’t have economic rationality, because the contribution to competiveness is almost zero.

But while building infrastructure is very visible and cutting them has political toll, science is an activity that only bears fruit in the long run. “Investing in science now won’t bring us out of the current crisis. But it will save us from the next one,” concludes Eduard Batlle, a researcher at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona.

This is part two of two articles looking at the situation for science in Spain. Part one appeared on 14 October.

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