Spain, the European exception: ‘economic miracle’ & scientific suicide

Six years ago, the Spanish parliament approved Law 14/2011, known as the Science Law, aiming to modernise and harmonise different aspects of scientific activity in Spain, by a virtually unanimous vote. Today, Spanish scientists are still waiting for the law to be fully implemented; more than three and half years after the deadline for implementation has passed.

In this article, the 5s6s Platform, a grassroots movement of Spanish scientists, including about 400 tenured scientists working in OPIs,  supported by another >1300 scientists working in different Spanish Universities and other research institutions,  denounces this untenable situation and requests that the Government finally implements the law.

An ambitious law

One of the goals of the Science Law was to replace an old-fashioned system. Under the latter, remunerations were awarded discretionally, without objective criteria. The law thus aims to extend a modern remuneration system based on objective merits–i.e. publications in top international journals–to all the scientists working in Public Research Organisms (OPIs) depending from the Spanish Government.

Before the law was passed, seven of these research institutions still operated under the old-fashioned system, completely lacking in transparency and largely ignoring scientific performance. This system effectively allowed to ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ scientists, thus potentially constraining scientific freedom.

This system effectively allowed to ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ scientists, thus potentially constraining scientific freedom.  Worse, this situation might have hindered the independence of scientific assessments of important issues, potentially compromising the effectiveness of policy decisions by the government.

However, this law, which is currently in force, demands that the obsolete reward system be replaced by a system based on the evaluation of objective merits by 1st January 2014. Astonishingly, at the present time, the Spanish Government still has not taken the necessary steps for the implementation of its own law.

Time for implementation

Recently, the leading newspaper in Spain, El País, published two articles in its Science section informing about this situation and analysing its implications. Two of the main opposition parties, PSOE (a social-democratic party) and C’s (a social-liberal party), have presented motions in the Spanish Congress urging the conservative government (PP) to implement the law.

Cases of arbitrary and discriminatory treatment of scientists have also been reported, triggering more questions in Parliament. Three weeks ago a motion asking the government to take steps in order to immediately enforce the Science Law was approved unanimously in the Parliament.

Unfortunately, according to the Spanish legal system Government is not bound by such Parliamentary resolutions. Several non-Spanish, European scientists working at Spanish institutions are currently preparing a complaint to the European Commission, to request the European Union to urge the Spanish Government to fully comply with the laws currently in force in the country and the EU treaty, which bans discrimination.

Excuses

The Spanish Government has blamed the lack of compliance with the law on the economic crisis and the budgetary constraints imposed by the European Union. The State Secretary for Research, Carmen Vela, already used this argument in 2012, a year in which the GDP shrank by 2.9%, and is now using it again in a period (since 2015) in which the GDP is growing by more than 3% annually.

The radically changed economic situation shows that this argument to avoid implementing the law no longer applies. This remarkable situation has also been highlighted in a recent report by the COTEC foundation – a prestigious non-profit institution, established in 1995 and presided by the King of Spain, which monitors the evolution of Science & Technology in Spain and other countries.

According to this report, Spain is a “European exception”, in view of the fact that currently, it invests 10% less in Research and Development than at the start of the recession. In the same period, the rest of the European Union has boosted R&D investment by 25%, likely at least partly motivated by the common notion that research generally stimulates economic growth.

Missing political will

Clearly, it is a lack of interest, not the recession, which is hampering scientific research in Spain. The government is not even applying measures that could effectively optimise the organisational structure of the system by reducing its top-heavy bureaucracy at no additional cost – a situation that has also contributed to the exodus of prestigious Spanish scientists.

Austerity measures and reductions in R&D investment are also gravely affecting hiring policies, endangering the continuity–let alone, the expansion– of research in general. According to the EC RIO Country Report 2016, Spain’s research establishment is currently shrinking and ageing. It also lacks the possibility to reincorporate many young and brilliant Spanish scientists that were forced into professional exile during the crisis.

On a daily basis, scientists who have had the opportunity or decided to stay and work under the Spanish system face daunting challenges, including serious funding restrictions and zero hopes of professional advancement.

The government should seriously consider what kind of economy and country it is designing for the future. The direction of Spain’s scientific policy needs to be corrected before it is too late. A real economic miracle must be based on a strong national R&D system. Otherwise, we will only get an economic mirage.

Luis V. García, National Research Council (CSIC), IRNAS-CSIC, Sevilla, Spain. (contact ventura@cica.es)
Marina AlbentosaSpanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO)
José AlcamíNational Health Institute Carlos III (ISCIII)
P. AndaNational Health Institute Carlos III (ISCIII)
David Barrado,  National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA)
Rosario Domínguez-PetitSpanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO)
Isabel García-Cortés National Center for Energy, Environment and Technological Research (CIEMAT)
Juan I. Golfín National Institute of Agrarian and Agro-Food Technology (INIA)
Lorena Gómez-AparicioNational Research Council (CSIC)
María P. MataSpanish Geological and Mining Institute (IGME)
Raúl Pérez-LópezSpanish Geological and Mining Institute (IGME)
Fernando Ponz National Institute of Agrarian and Agro-Food Technology (INIA)
Javier Sánchez-EspañaSpanish Geological and Mining Institute (IGME)
Boudewijn van Milligen National Center for Energy, Environment and Technological Research (CIEMAT)
Pedro Vélez-BelchíSpanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO)
Ángel ZaballosNational Health Institute Carlos III (ISCIII)

The authors are all Staff Scientists belonging to the Platform 5s6s outreach group, working at the main Spanish Public Research Organisms.

Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by Gilad Rom

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3 thoughts on “Spain, the European exception: ‘economic miracle’ & scientific suicide”

  1. You write that you consider salaries based on “publications in top international journals” a “modern remuneration system based on objective merits”. I do not expect anything else from politicians and managers who do not know any better than to revert to mere publication counting in order to measure scientific quality, but for an active scientist (or group of scientists) to argue the same, is rather surprising. Based on this argument, some scientist working in say biomedical research, where it is not uncommon to publish 5-6 articles per year, should get paid much higher salaries than people working in say, a scientific engineering department where the time from conceiving an idea to the development of a prototype and the subsequent publication of results can be of the order of 2-3 years for a single publication. This is like saying that handball is a better sport than football because they score more goals in handball. Plain stupid!