Spain sets out to overhaul research careers

22 Feb 2022 | News

As countries around the world scramble to retain and attract research talent, Spanish ministers vote through reforms that aim to improve research careers and guarantee increased public funding for research

Diana Morant, Minister of Science and Innovation of Spain. Photo: Borja Puig de la Bellacasa / Flickr

Spain has set out to improve the lives of its researchers after years of hand to mouth existence and a brain drain that has significantly weakened the public research sector.  

A reform of a 2011 law will see young researchers getting permanent contracts, recognition of experience gained abroad and new labour rights. At the same time, there will be increased public spending on research.   

“This reform comes to repair the failures of a science and innovation system aggravated during a decade of cuts that caused the destruction of thousands of public places, precarious careers, ageing staff, the flight of scientific talent from our country and a stopper for an entire generation,” Diana Morant, minister for science and innovation, told a press conference on Friday.

The reform was approved by the Council of ministers last week and must now be scrutinised by parliament, which may make a few final tweaks.

Research in Spain has suffered dramatic losses ever since the 2008 financial crisis, when there were big cuts in the science budget. The government estimates that between 2011 and 2016 alone more than 5,000 research positions were lost. Many researchers left the country, and the poor working conditions deterred young people from entering the field.

The current government is hoping to reverse this by improving employment rights. Postdoctoral researchers will be able to get a new type of contract guaranteeing job security for up to six years. After that, researchers may get a certificate that will help them secure a permanent position. If they get fired, postdoc researchers will now be entitled to compensation.

The reform is largely focused on research careers, but the government will also commit to increasing public research expenditure to 1.25% of GDP by 2030, to reducing red tape for research projects and requiring public institutions to have gender equality plans, much like those that Horizon Europe grantees must have starting this year.

All this brings Spain closer to EU goals for revamping research, which were set out by the European Commission in 2020 in a plan to revive the European Research Area (ERA).

“All in all, I find it is aligned with ERA. It is a serious effort,” said Enric Banda, senior adviser at the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre, who also chairs an advisory council that informs the government on strategic science, research and innovation issues.

Banda noted the reform for the first time recognises health research staff. Health is a regional matter in Spain and has not been acknowledged in national science policy until now. “The fact that they recognise it and say that hospitals have to have their own research personnel is something that people have not given a lot of importance to [until now],” he said.

Welcome back

A major goal of the reform is retaining and attracting talent back to Spain. The last decade or so has seen the country lose its most talented researchers.

“The objective is to make Spain a country for science, with attractive conditions and salaries, where those who left can return and the brightest minds can join our country,” Morant said.

In support of this, the country’s research institutions will for the first recognise experience gained in the public sector and universities abroad. Until now, such experience was not taken into account when hiring scientific staff and fixing salaries, deterring many from returning to Spain.

The move to attract talent from abroad puts Spain on the list of countries moving to open new academic recruitment drives to poach talented researchers, as the world competes on cutting edge technologies such as quantum and artificial intelligence.

Last December, Canada revealed plans to hire 1,000 new academics. In July, the UK announced a new strategy opening up more career progression opportunities. Spain’s own draft of a new start-up law promises a new type of visa of up to five years that will come with massive tax cuts.

Overlooking innovation

A major move is the government’s promise to gradually boost public spending on research to 1.25% of GDP by the end of the decade.

Today, Spain’s total public and private research expenditure hovers around 1.4% of GDP, of which around half is public money.

Banda congratulated the commitment but said the private sector’s role should not be forgotten. “When you talk about the system of science, technology and innovation, you want the whole system to work, not only a part of it. This law leaves innovation on its own,” Banda said.

The government’s reasoning is that committing to the public sector target will enable the country to reach the combined 3% public and private spending target set out at EU level. But Banda is sceptical whether this can be done without special measures to spur private sector innovation.

The issue Banda said, is the policy set out in the country’s very first science law in 1986, which put the focus on research, where it has since stayed. “We have been doing the same thing for the last 40 years, and it didn’t work. “If it doesn’t work, we have to change it,” he said.

Despite this, the government pledge to reach the target of public expenditure equivalent to 1.25% of GDP is still a major step forward. “For the first time there is a number and a commitment,” said Banda.

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