Spain: Uninformed wishful thinking as R&D policy shunts public research support

“Reason for your visit?” – the immigration officer asks sharply. “I’m looking for a job. I’m coming for some interviews”. “But you used to live here…” he points out, looking carefully at an expired visa. “For more than a decade” I answer. He looks at the front page of my worn-out passport. “Spain…things are not good over there, are they?” I nod. “Good luck,” he says, letting us go through. “Do you want to live here?” I whisper to my 12-week old baby as we cross the passport control. This is her third transatlantic trip in ten days. By the time we get back she will have spent half of her life traveling. There are thousands of other scientists like me.

I put away our passports. The recent words of the Spanish ruling-party congressman in charge of R&D, Alejandro Fernández, still resonate in my head: “there is no brain drain, it is no more than an unjustified cliché.” I am thinking about our last meeting in the Spanish Congress (Congreso de los Diputados) with him and the young scientists who were present. Diego just moved to Australia. Andy has an offer in Brazil. I am applying for jobs in North America. I think about giving this congressman a call…right now, from the airport. Spanish politicians are systematically deluding themselves in thinking that the number of Spanish scientists that leave the country is balanced by the number of foreigners that arrive. I doubt they are keeping track. And if they are, they must be counting the tourists.

Furthermore, they insist that spending some time abroad is good for us, as if we are recent PhD graduates. The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) where I have a “tenure-track” fellowship just lost 1,208 science jobs in the last 15 months, 205 in January-February 2013 alone. This is no brain drain, it is a brain annihilation. But their denial does not stop here: Luis de Guindos, the Minister of Economy—now in charge of R&D, after the Ministry of Science was dismantled by the new government—recently said that the R&D budget was increased by 5% in 2013. In reality, the R&D spending was slashed by 13.7% this year, with an accumulated loss of almost 40% since 2009—that’s without counting the loss in real terms incorporating inflation, or the money that may not be spent due to sequestration (the feared “no disponibilidad”). Where that 5% is coming from is a mystery. Interestingly, he was the director of Lehman Brothers in Spain at the time it went bankrupt.

To the rescue, comes the recently approved Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, written from a parallel universe that has little to do with our reality. This document does not mention the drastic budget cuts in R&D of the last few years and makes no assessment of their impact. And, needless to say, it does not suggest any measures to stop the brain annihilation. What can we make of a so-called Strategy that does not specify the human and financial resources that will be available for R&D in the short and medium -term? In reality, it does tell us an old fairy tale: the plan is to reach a R&D investment of 2% of GDP by 2020. This completely ignores the fact that 2% was the government’s R&D investment target for 2010 and that the European Commission provides on a 3% target. The average spent in R&D in the EU 27 today is just over 2%. This Strategy is therefore likely to delay the convergence of Spanish research with European standards by more than a decade.

But this document is much more than uninformed wishful thinking. It seems to be following directives from the Chicago School of Economics. The Strategy establishes the transfer of resources from basic research in the public sector to innovation in the private sector. Which private sector? Are policy makers referring to the very same private sector that did not invest in R&D even when the economy was booming? Basic research constitutes the building blocks of all scientific progress and this magical word, innovation, will go nowhere without the scientific progress achieved by the public sector. Another buzz word is excellence. Scarce resources, they assert, will make excellence flourish, as if research followed the Darwinian rule of survival of the fittest. Research is not predictable and without a diversified portfolio it will not be able to flourish in a rapidly changing environment. Particularly, when the best trained “young” scientists—in their late 30’s and 40’s—are leaving the country.

Shortly after the Strategy was approved we received more news. After a one-year delay, the decree on the national three-year research grants appeared in the Official State Bulletin (BOE). This is the main source of funding for Spanish scientists. Without warning, the grants had been drastically reduced with respect to what had been previously announced. Grants will only receive 7% of their approved budget on the first year, making the hiring of graduate students, postdocs and lab assistants impossible. As if this were not enough, since late last year the Ministry of the Treasury has been blocking the transfer of all funds to research groups working at public universities belonging to administrative regions not fulfilling drastic deficit reduction targets. Needless to say, research groups of excellence are not being spared.

Looking at the endless line of bags coming out onto the luggage carousel, I wonder how many of those belong to scientists fleeing from Southern Europe. And how long before a common science policy is established in the EU, implementing without fail the percentage of GDP that should be invested in R&D, which until now have been a mere recommendation. The European Commission is aware that R&D investment and GDP growth are highly correlated. They should act accordingly and they should act fast.

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Amaya Moro-Martín

Amaya Moro-Martín is an astrophysicist and spokesperson of the grassroots movement of Spanish scientists, Investigación Digna
Amaya Moro-Martín

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