EuroScientist interview: Pablo Echenique-Robba, Eurodeputy, Podemos

Pablo Echenique-Robba started his political career back in January 2014. Until then, he was a physicist at the public research agency CSIC, working, among others, on the issue of proteins folding. Now, he is involved in a citizen democracy movement, called Podemos. Here, Pablo Echenique shares his view on science in Spain and in Europe in an exclusive interview to the EuroScientist.

The movement started campaigning during the European Parliament elections, with financial support gained from crowdfunding . As a result, the movement  secured five MEP positions out of 54 and 1.2 million votes –8% of the total–against the backdrop of the emergence of extremist right wing political parties. Podemos  is led by Pablo Iglesias, a member of the faculty of political science from the Complutense University in Madrid.

Citizen participation in research policy

Podemos owes it success to its participative democracy approach.  It has been able to attract the interest of many through the creation of circles. They are now more than 800 of them dotted around Spain and even abroad in cities where the brain drain has brought Spanish citizens to emigrate. These circles are designed to entice people’s participation to discussions and find constructive solutions to topics of common interest. These involve health, education, feminism, science, transport, civil servants, trade unions, immigration,  full employment and research and innovation.

In  this interview,  Echenique touches upon his vision for the way Podemos is intending to write its future research and innovation programme. He believes in asking people who know how the system works and invite them to take part to the drafting of the policy.“ We don’t think that the top of the system is the people who know how the system works.”

New European research commissioner

Expanding on the European research context, he comments on the appointment of Carlos Moedas as the new research commissioner: “I think that the election of the commissioner, is not based on merit, is not based on know-how, is not based on anything apart from a pact between counties.”

He refers to the recent visit of Angela Merkel to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy prior to the nomination of the new commissioner. He believes, they were making some secret pact while walking in the field of Galicia. He adds: “That’s what they call democracy. I don’t really think so. I don’t have a lot of hope that the new research commissioner is the best man for the job.”

He then suggests an alternative approach by advocating direct voting in open primaries. “I know from experience that the result is typically very good. Maybe direct democracy is not perfect. But what’s obvious and what’s clear from recent history of our continent, this fake of a democracy that we have is not good at all.”

Out of the recession

At the beginning of the interview, Echenique first talks about means to get out of the current recession.

“In the case of Spain, it is obvious that the growth model that Spain was aiming for was very unstable and not at all sustainable in time. We only had to have one crisis to have 25% unemployment. One of the failures of that growth model is that innovation was never on the table, never.”

He believes that to have a growth model in line with other more developed EU countries, “it needs to be based on added value and not building a lot of buildings or welcoming a lot of tourists in our beaches, then the only possible way of doing that is having a very strong innovation system, which, at the moment, the actual government is practically destroying it.”

Implementation

Concerning what needs to be done to ensure the implementation of his vision, he argues for higher level of funding.

“Scientists in Spain have been able to do a lot with very little. So in that sense, I don’t think science in Spain has been inefficient. Rather the other way around. It has been extremely efficient… Scientists in Spain are doing magic. I don’t really think the system is inefficient, at the moment, I think it is underfinanced.”

He then adds: “In matters of man power, of people, we are fine. In matters of how to do things, we still have lots to learn from countries like Germany, for example, I am thinking about the Max Planck network of institutes, I think we have to look North for inspiration.”

Minimum support for R&D

Regarding the minimum agreement for supporting research and development in Spain presented at the Spanish Congress in December 2013, it was supported by all parties except the ruling party. The question of whether Podemos would support it, Echenique mentions that the party has yet to  further organise internally, in getting a unique voice, but “I cannot see how Podemos wouldn’t support it, in the end…What is asked in the letter is the minimum. I think we should aim for more, and I told it so to the people responsible for Carta Abierta [por la Ciencia, involved in drafting this agreement]” he says.

Brain drain reversal and research funding increase

On issues pertaining to reversing the brain drain, he comments: “We have to make a plan for returning scientists.” He then touches upon the need to give scientists decent working conditions: “I think you have to give scientists a normal salary because, money wise, we scientists are not ambitious, so we only want to live a quiet life and have the basic things…”

He also adds: “But you also have to make the job positions stable.” That’s because if the scientist is thinking about their next postdoc or what they will do in the next six months, he says, they are not thinking about science. “I think, you have to provide scientists with stable careers and you have to have enough funding for the labs to run.”

Change in the governing class

In the biggest picture on how best to implement these changes, he says, “we have to change our governing class, if we want to have better science because the current governing class is not interested in research and development.”

He believes that even in countries that have a lot of private sector involvement in research, it is always the public sector making the largest discovery.

He adds: “I think that it’s a fairy tale, what our governing class thinks at the moment,” referring to the current innovation mantra of the Spanish government, whereby innovation is expected to stem from the private sector and not from publicly funded research.

 

Interview by Sabine Louët, EuroScientist Editor.

 Go back to the Research Activism special issue.

Photo credit: TEDxZaragozaRoberto Ruíz Herrera 

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