11 Feb 2020   |   News

Spain’s mission-led research is a way to think bigger

President of the Spanish National Research Council, Rosa Menéndez, explains how new cross-disciplinary platforms are bringing together diverse research teams to promote creativity and generate innovation

Rosa María Menéndez López. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

Investment in innovation-led, multi-team technology platforms is cultivating a dynamic environment in which creativity thrives, says Rosa Menéndez, president of Spain’s main science agency, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC).

In a departure from the traditional model, twelve broad academia–industry collaborations were set up in April 2018 around cross-disciplinary areas of research, including quantum technologies, batteries and sustainable plastics.

The rationale is to introduce “a new experimental flavour” to Spain’s centralised research funding system, Menéndez says. “We needed to shake up our day-by-day and make our science more interdisciplinary. The idea was to push people to work together in a more organised fashion,” she told Science|Business.

Proximity and conversation among researchers from different backgrounds will promote creativity and help the country stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape, she said. “We came up with the platforms because we needed to think bigger and show more ambition.”

CSIC, which Menéndez has run since 2017, oversees 120 discipline-focussed science centres around Spain.

From these centres, over 30 platform proposals emerged; 12 made it through evaluation and, almost two years in, are now “running very well,” Menéndez said.

Each platform brings together academic researchers, companies, and non-government groups, which together set targets. To oil the wheels, a total of €20 million in seed funding will go to the platforms, with corporate partners expected to contribute cash too. The platforms have merged 500 research groups, and drawn in 100 companies.

If this all sounds like the new EU-led research missions that are due to be set up under the next research programme, Horizon Europe, it should. The platforms “put the country in a very strong position” to join the EU missions, says Menéndez. The proposed missions, akin to the billion-euro cross disciplinary flagship projects in brain, graphene and quantum research in Horizon 2020, will target specific problems, including cancer and plastic pollution at sea.

The Spanish platforms also bear some similarity to the Knowledge and Innovation Communities set up by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which also gather diverse research groups around themes.

The first 12 platforms will run for three years; depending on their performance, some will continue, some will be stopped, said Menéndez.

The idea is to expand the concept outwards. “We want to open them further to universities down the line,” Menéndez said. Several universities are already indirectly involved in the platforms, through university-affiliated institutes.

Growing again

Menéndez is hopeful that the platforms can tap some of the new inward investment coming into Spain, which has risen since the UK referendum result in 2016, at the expense of foreign capital flowing to the UK.

“It’s easier to get SMEs involved than the larger companies,” she said. There are exceptions – with IBM having joined the quantum tech platform, for instance.

The government’s overall science investment, around 1.2 per cent of GDP, remains low in a country that has experienced a rollercoaster economic decade since the global financial crisis.

In the immediate aftermath, from 2009 to 2013, Spain’s science budget plunged by almost 40 per cent.

“We lost a lot of scientists during the crash. Our facilities and equipment were excellent; the problem was keeping people. We’re growing again,” Menéndez said. The right elements are falling back into place, with an increase in Spanish EU research grants pointing to the recovery of the country’s R&D system.

CSIC ranks in the top five in successful applications for funding under Horizon 2020, alongside Germany’s Max Planck network, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and University College London.

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