Myths and misadventures of Spanish science

The financial crisis—in which we are still immersed—has brought back words such as cyclical and counter-cyclical; a terminology typically used by economists, independently their ideological or theoretical flavour. The problem with the current debate is that most of the discussions are about the economic aspect of the recession. Meanwhile, the concerns of citizens confronted to this economic context are diluted. This situation has been forced upon people, on the basis that the punishing situation imposed by austerity measures is temporary and that life conditions will subsequently be improved.

Reflecting upon this situation is helped by looking at it from the perspective of someone having responsibilities for managing science and technology policies and by taking into account the hindsight provided by science history. Both—policy related and historical—perspectives indicate that ups and downs are part of the normal path we all have to go through, which inevitably includes cyclical suffering. With this in mind, I wrote an article referring to the myth of Sisyphus in the Ciencia al Día Internacional journal. In this opinion piece, I made a parallel with this myth. It helped providing a historical perspective on the fate of Spanish science in the past 100 years and replace the current situation with research into a wider context.

The main facts supporting this analogy are as follows. First of all, there has never been a Spanish golden age of science and technology. We can only talk about a Spanish silver age between 1880 and 1936. In this period, Spain was going through an era of regeneration where education, science and technology were promoted by organisations such as the Free Education Institution (Institución Libre de Enseñanza) and the Board for advanced studies and scientific research (Junta para Ampliación de Estudios e Investigaciones Científicas (JAE)). During this period of change, the figure of Santiago Ramón y Cajal became a pioneer of science policy in Spain. To date, he remains the only Spanish scientist awarded with a Nobel prize for studies in Physiology and Medicine performed within Spain.

This adventure abruptly ended when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, leading to the exile of the academic and scientific community. After the war, the Spanish scientific systems had to be rebuilt. This endeavour started as it faced the economical and logistic difficulties of the post-war period. This process led to the creation of the Scientific Research National Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, CSIC) over the JAE remains. CSIC’s fate has been met by crisis, fortune and misfortune, along the way until today. During that time, the Spanish university system has been faced with a similarly difficult management and development process. The dictatorship of Franco’s government gave technocrats the responsibility for front line of political actions, including that of planning and pushing modern Spanish science and technology. These development plans were the first significant strategic effort towards this goal.

Franco’s death subsequently interrupted these efforts as Spanish society was confronted to economic and social troubles. The Moncloa Pacts (Pactos de la Moncloa) constituted an initiative to address these difficult circumstances in a collaborative manner among different political and social partners to open the doors for a democratic transition. However, it was not a time to address technological and scientific issues.

At the beginning of this democratic transition, the efforts of some personalities belonging to different political ideologies contributed to the inclusion of science and technology in the modernisation wave. This initiative crystallised upon arrival of the Socialist Party in Government after the elections of October 1982. This is during that period that the Spanish management of science and technology was brought in line with the ones of more advanced countries. Indeed, this led to the introduction of new regulations and strategies as well as the instruments and guidelines relevant to the development of the country’s research infrastructure.

Since then, Spain has been moving towards its current position, where it has established itself as a serious player in scientific production, reflecting its demographic and economic position. Technology transfer and innovation in the industrial sector still lag behind, with some exceptions it turns out that the public sector has been more committed to science and technology than the private sector. As a result, the political power has generally regarded science and technology as one of the possible factors of progress, much more so than the economic power in the country.

What has positively influenced the development of science and technology in Spain is two-fold. On one hand, the leadership exercised by highly qualified public servants coming from universities and public research organisations has been key. These people had a close connection to the scientific and technological culture. On the other hand, science and technology policies have also benefited from the cooperation between different ministries concerned, and at governing level in autonomous regions.

These achievements, still modest, have been subjected to an attack that is more ideological than logical. Indeed, in the past three years, aggressive cuts have been imposed on research by the outside and brought about according to prominent criteria that are both fundamentalist and anti-democratic (and therefore not legitimate).

What a poor state of affairs for a country, which requires strategy and vision to evolve, and instead is subjected to a Scottish shower—reminiscent of an out-dated remedy to improve blood circulation by alternating hot and cold water—or to the vagaries experienced by Sisyphus during his hard work, as Albert Camus so brightly described.

Emilio Muñoz

Emeritus Research Professor at the Institute of Philosophy at CSIC, Coordinator of a Research Unit on Scientific Culture at CIEMAT (Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales y Tecnológicas), Former president of CSIC (1988-1991)

Contribution kindly translated from Spanish by Fran Teran, researcher iMDEA Nanoscience, Madrid.

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