Support for science is growing in Spain, but 80% of the population thinks that not enough money is put in R&D. Yet, the country’s political parties have historically failed to regard it as a strategic activity. The recent COVID-19 crisis has hit Spain harder than most of our neighbors in the short term and will no doubt bring economic hardship in the long run – from which less innovative countries will struggle more to recover. If there is a time for a U-turn, it is now.
The Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK), drawing on members’ experience working in both countries, has just published a report with recommendations for the Spanish Government to strengthen the country’s R&D system.
Crucially, Spain must step up public investment in R&D, which remains alarmingly low when compared to our neighbouring countries. While the UK has an ambitious plan to boost their spending to 2.4% GDP by 2027, such plans are so far lacking in Spain, which currently spends only 1.2% GDP in R&D. This figure is well short of the EU average (2.2%) and in stark contrast to the most innovative countries in the Europe, such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany (all over 3%).
Far from new, this situation has worsened over recent years. Spain cut its R&D spending in a 5.8% between 2009 and 2017, while the EU increased it a 22% in the same period. Furthermore, Spanish R&D budgets include a high proportion of loans and credits. These end up not being spent – up to an alarming 90% – arguably due to conditions not being competitive against commercial loans despite advances to reduce bureaucracy. In the case of universities, credits are also unattractive because they lead to unaffordable debt. Even the European Commission in its last semester report pointed out that Spain shows limited progress on R&D investment. Now that science seems to finally be on the agenda, a swift increase in public R&D funding is indispensable.
Funding problems arise partly due to poor engagement of the Spanish private sector in its R&D system, which only accounts for 0.58% GDP. This is about half of what companies spend on it in the UK (1.24%) or the EU (1.14%). Legal and economic frameworks that encourage companies small and large to invest in R&D must be urgently designed, and structures to promote public-private research strengthened. For instance, the UK has developed programmes like the Patent Box where companies with patented products can obtain tax exemptions, and public-private graduate schemes such as the Engineering Doctorate (EngD). Spain needs to think outside the box, look at where our neighbors are doing better and implement this kind of policies to promote a closer interaction between public and private sector and an innovation-based economy.
Additionally, Spain’s much-needed diversification of funding sources must also support the role of charities in funding research. These are consistent contributors to the British R&D system – for instance, Cancer Research UK alone provided 423 million pounds for research in 2018. To this end, we propose legal changes and tax deductions to support research-funding charities in Spain.
That being said, a funding boost is necessary, but not sufficient. The country must open up to become a global player in innovation. While about a quarter of staff in state universities of other European countries are foreign nationals, this figure drops to 2% in Spain. High inbreeding is observed, with 73% of the teaching staff working at the university where they obtained their PhD. We propose to increase transparency and extend the use of English in recruitment, streamline accreditation and homologation procedures and improve attraction and retention of talent. The latter must include wage rises and flexible working policies. Albeit career instability is not an issue exclusively for researchers in Spain, the country should set out clearer career paths for research graduates within and outside of academia. Along with this, Spain needs to meet similar salary standards to those of our European neighbours and introduce flexible working policies – particularly for teaching and research staff – if it is to revert the brain drain that has taken place.
In conclusion, the analysis carried out by SRUK identifies a clear opportunity for a science policy U-turn in the country, and highlights funding, synergies between stakeholders, internationalization and improvement of the recruitment system as key intervention areas for action. This would help transform Spain’s production system and establish it as a stronger innovator. What was always important is now urgent – Spain must seize the moment and consolidate R&D as a key area to support the country’s economy and knowledge generation in the years ahead.
Note: Both authors are members of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK. Pablo Izquierdo is Director of Science Policy at SRUK. The report and the recommendations discussed in this article were developed with other members of SRUK’s Science Policy department and approved by SRUK’s Board of Directors. SRUK is an independent and non-profit organization without any political affiliation, and the authors declare no conflict of interest.