Grassroots: watch for disingenuous initiatives among the guises of Spanish research activism

Watch for disingenuous initiatives among the guises of Spanish research activism

The consequences for research of “Spain Brand’s” institutional interests percolating research activities

At the 2017 AAAS meeting, Barbara Schaal, the AAAS President, while talking about the international nature of science, reflected that the US has probably benefited from it more than any other country because it has been able to attract the best and the brightest from the world. “Science in the US flourishes when we allow [them] to come, and to live, and to work here.” For the Spanish government, however, the internationalisation of Spanish science has a remarkably different meaning: it means to maximise the return from European grants and to use science diplomacy to improve the prestige of Spanish science abroad.

In the meantime, the Spanish science system, that was criticised more than 80 years ago by Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal for its hermeticism, under-funding, over-regulation and bureaucratic burdens, still suffers from those same ailments which undermine the ability of the country to attract international talent. The latter, however, does not seem to be a major concern for government officials.

Limits to science diplomacy

In a recent Nature World View commentary, I criticised the Spanish government’s aforementioned science diplomacy because it is entirely oblivious the dire state of science in the country. It characterises, for example, the brain drain as a cunning political strategy “to reinforce [Spain’s] scientific presence in strategic countries”, instead of the inevitable result of sustained underfunding–35% cut in civil R&D spending since 2009–and lack of opportunities–about 12,200 researchers lost in the 2010-2015 period, according to the latest study by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics.

The controversy raised by that criticism helped in uncovering another equally concerning aspect of this very peculiar line of science diplomacy: the government’s attempt to bias the voice of the Spanish scientific diaspora. At a time when scientists worldwide must become sentinels, at a time when we have witnessed the largest demonstration of scientists in history with the March for Science, we need to stand on our guard against any attempts to bias or silence their voices.

The government’s strategy, as described by officials from the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) in a recent article in the journal Science Diplomacy, consists of using a network formed by numerous associations of Spanish scientists abroad “as a useful “soft power”diplomacy asset and a provider of transnational scientific guidance”. The article repetitively claims that these scientific associations–present in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Australia and Singapore– were “pre-existing”, that they had “already been established” “bottom-up”. It then talks about the challenge of establishing proper institutional channels with them.

Beware of apparent bottom-up

I initially accepted their bottom-up credentials at face value. But I only recently found out that these associations were not created bottom-up. Instead, they were the result of an aggressive top-down strategy, with the government remaining their main sponsor since their constitution. Those supposedly challenging institutional channels that needed to be created are in reality their umbilical cord. The Science Diplomacy article is, therefore, misleading when talking about “providing top-down support to bottom-up associations of Spanish researchers abroad”. These associations were not created bottom-up.

Indeed, the 2012 annual report of FECYT describes how this government agency “has been the driving force behind the creation of the Community of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (CERU) and in Germany (CERFA)”. FECYT’s 2014 annual report makes the same claim about the Association of Spanish Researchers in Italy. In the same publication, FECYT director, also an author of the Science Diplomacy paper, explains that in 2011 he led the creation of the UK community: “I called a group of scientists on June 4, 2011 and there was only one person. After, we were able to build a community that now encompasses 900 scientists.“

In the summer of 2013, I received myself a letter from FECTY to my Princeton University email address to encourage me to participate in the formation of a similar association in the US. The first joint meeting of this latter association was inaugurated by His Majesty King Felipe VI and at the Secretary of State for Research, Technology and Innovation, which would have been very remarkable for a bottom-up association. The latter was also present at the organisation chartering meeting of the Spanish Scientists Association in Japan.

Spain brand

Why is this relevant? It is relevant because the Science Diplomacy article claims this “network is also active as a science policy advocacy group.” And it is relevant because their genesis is part of the “Spain Brand” strategy. According to Wikipedia, Spain Brand, or Marca España, rests on three points “(1) The image of a country, or brand country, is subject to constant change; (2) It is feasible to influence that change; (3) It is up to the public authorities to design policies that improve that image.” It cares about image, not reality.

In the Proceedings of the first joint meeting of the Spanish Scientists in the US, the Government High Commissioner for Spain Brand–with Spain Brand being of its several governmental sponsors–explained the underlying strategy and the role of that these associations play in it: “Spain Brand has as main tasks to improve the external image of Spain and strengthen and enhance our self-esteem. (…) In the first period, from 2012 to 2013, the primary challenge was to stop the evident deterioration of our country image abroad. […] Having achieved this, we enter a second phase, in which Spain is presented as a country of opportunity. From 2015, with the consolidation of the recovery and the evident macroeconomic improvements, Spain Brand can carry out a more positive and ambitious communication strategy: Spain as a country of talent.”

Those evident macroeconomic improvements that the Government High Commissioner for Spain Brand talked about had no positive effect in the Spanish science system–nor in the standard of living of the citizens. And it is precisely the sustained lack of opportunities that has lead to all the emigration of its talent.

Back to the grassroots

Spain Brand has relied on increasing the gap between perception and reality in relation to the state of science in the country. And to increase that gap they need to capitalise on the success of Spanish scientists abroad. FECYT, the agency that has embraced this vision, is also in charge of creating research development and innovation indicators. They also manage the Spanish Observatory of Research, Development and Innovation, all of which should play a critical role in assessing the effectiveness of the government’s current science policy. I am now concern that Spain Brand may also have percolated in these activities.

I have been involved in grassroots science advocacy since the beginning of the crisis, and I have witnessed to what degree the Spanish government has turned a deaf ear to the criticism and pleas from the broad Spanish scientific community–encompassing the grassroots and the scientific “establishment”–even when there was wide political consensus in Parliament to support our proposed measures. This is why I find very concerning that the Spanish government has aggressively implemented this network of scientific associations in the framework of Spain Brand.

In the words of Barbara Schaal, “the role of scientists is to speak truth to power”. Any attempt by the government to undermine that ability, to create echo chambers, contributes to the political downgrading of science because it hinders the undistorted dialogue between the scientific community and policy makers that is necessary to make science part of the political agenda.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA-4.0 by NordiskKaktus

Amaya Moro-Martín

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One thought on “Watch for disingenuous initiatives among the guises of Spanish research activism”

  1. Dear Amaya, I am very grateful to your article and as we discussed in the past I share most of your points. However I would like to explain, as the founder of CERFA, that FECYT was never involved in its formation and that besides paying a subscription for webinars, never helped with funding to the Society while I was president, at least. CERFA originated thanks to my discussions with the first president of CERU/SRUK and I build it, with few other researchers, alone. If FECYT used our Constitution on their own docs is something not in my knowledge but that is completely wrong. Thanks again for keep rising your opinions! My best