Copyright: S.Borisov

Change needed for Spain to compete internationally

Dear Editor,

Science in Spain has never been well endowed. Yet, during my 14 year-long career in science, my colleagues and myself have always been able to research in a decent way. Unfortunately, next month, our last grant expires along with many others that have expired. All our young PhDs have left; this has not happened before. It echoes the time, back in the sixties, when people like my parents, went to Europe to work in low qualified jobs as waiters, cooks, etc.

Facing the brain drain

Some of our PhDs used to go abroad for a postdoc. But they always returned. Some others just stayed here with temporary contracts or as technicians, as Spain does not have so many biotechnology companies. It would be ok if we knew they could come back. But unfortunately we know that it will be very difficult. Not only in science but in almost any job. Spain has spent millions of Euros in educating these people. They are now leaving. This is yet another view of the money wasted and of the lack of control over this brain drain.

People who have left know that they will not be able to come back in the next three to five years. Things do not change so quickly. And science is an activity that needs to be planned with a long-term perspective. It is the only successful way of doing science. Moreover, if they want to have a decent living standard, while working in science, they will need to stay abroad. Unfortunately, in Spain the state-designed scientific career path lacks so much flexibility that only a few can really work in science; sometimes they are not the best.

Tackling the human resources issue

The system has to be changed to be able to contract the best people in each field. In my opinion, it is better to have fewer research groups that have better funding—leading to higher scientists salaries and better living conditions—for those who have demonstrated their capability to work efficiently. This will enable Spain to compete in attracting scientists that would otherwise be better paid in richer countries! Otherwise they will never come. We should also have completely independent committees with distinguished international scientists to evaluate applications for public positions in science. This would enable Spain to only have the best people performing high-level science.

Instead of funding non-efficient research, Spain has to think of an attractive enough return program for young scientists abroad. These PhDs and postdocs might have found a new life, had a family abroad, etc. Unless they are offered stability and good conditions similar to that those they have abroad —including a decent salary, medical cover, kinder garden and school, social protection, and a positive environment—, they might never come back. Besides, in a scientist’s career, training is also key. So mobility programs in all stages of the research career will really educate the researcher and help improve the work of their whole environment.

Tailoring European calls for funding

It might also help if prestigious calls like the ERC grant calls could, say in the next five years for example, account for the fact that countries are being faced with economic hardship  and therefore issue specific calls for countries that have suffered cuts in order to give their scientists a chance to compete on a more level playing field. It does not mean that they have to be easier. The quality control of the process must be the same. Today, it is simply not possible to compete with groups that have seen increased their funding, as happened in some in Northern European countries. This is especially evident for university research groups, that have to compete for the same grants as scientist working in research centres with much less, or no teaching dedication time. Releasing a specific call would help to decrease the number of applicants. And if the project is good maybe get it and give an impulse to good groups that cannot have an opportunity otherwise.

And Europe must require controls and accountability for all the funds being awarded, and not only give money and ‘blame the Spanish’ for wasting it. If you give money to someone you make sure it is properly used; otherwise the granting body cannot blame anyone but themselves afterwards.

These are just some of the problems triggered by the cuts. A whole generation of scientist will be affected if it is not taken care really soon.

Thank you very much,

Cristina Ortega

Assistant Professor, Spain

Note: The opinion expressed in this letter is personal and not that of my current research institution.

Photo credit: S.Borisov_via_Shutterstock


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One thought on “Change needed for Spain to compete internationally”

  1. When it comes to science, our number-one priority remains support for the excellent researchers that Spain already has. In February, we were able to continue the Researcher Staff Training funding scheme for our youngest talent with the same total funds as last year.