Urgent reforms urged in Spain

Science system needs a total overhaul if the nation is to avoid falling behind, societies say

By | June 24, 2005

Spanish science is in need of drastic and urgent reform if it is to keep pace with its European neighbors, according to a report released this week by a group of societies representing tens of thousands of researchers.

The report, released Monday, was commissioned by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE), which represents some 30,000 scientists from 53 societies. "It's the most important army ever mounted," said COSCE president Joan Guinovart, a biochemist at the University of Barcelona.

"The situation is critical," Guinovart told The Scientist. "It is urgent that we take measures. Spain's science is at a crossroads. If we take a step forward now, we can get to the level of our neighbors. If we don't, we'll lose a historic opportunity."

The report makes a total of 70 concrete proposals to make the scientific system more competitive. First, its authors urge the government to stick to its previous promise to increase R&D spending by 25% annually until 2008. "I am confident that they will respect this commitment. If money is there, then it's possible to make reforms," said Pere Puigdoménech, director of Barcelona's Institute of Molecular Biology.

Responding to the report, the government reaffirmed its commitment to the extra spending. Salvador Barberá, state secretary of science policy at the Science and Education Ministry, told The Scientist that "not only will the government keep its promise, but also will devote more money to genuine science."

"I welcome the government plans to increase the science budget but wonder how they will distribute the funds," said Enric Banda, director of the Catalan Research Foundation, and former secretary general of the European Science Foundation. A substantial amount of this year's research budget increase was set aside for technological innovation, including military expenses.

A section of the report devoted to human resources points out that Spanish scientists are few in number and aging, mainly due to the difficulties to obtain stable jobs. "The Spanish research system is mainly based on a civil-servant career, which favors individualism against collective work," the report claims. In addition to financial incentives and promotion of mobility, the authors ask the government to create a tenure-track system for young researchers.

They also stress that Spain urgently needs to establish an agency or commission for evaluating and financing of research, similar to the United Kingdom's Research Councils UK. This agency "must be autonomous and work with agility and impartiality," the report's authors say.

The idea of such an agency had been put forth by the current government before they won the general election last year. "We are now [after the report] encouraged more than ever to go ahead with the agency," Barberá told The Scientist.

The report also urges the government to undertake a deep reform of CSIC, (the Spanish Council for Scientific Research), the chief agency devoted to basic science in the country. "The CSIC is a post [Spanish Civil] war-devised structure that can't be sustained longer," says Guinovart. "It is indispensable to decentralize the CSIC authority and management capacity," the report states.

The report was made public just a few days before a meeting of the Interministerial Commission of Science and Technology (CICYT), and was delivered to María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, first vice president of the government and CICYT president, on June 20.

"During the meeting of CICYT this week, its president will make an institutional declaration in favor of science until 2010," Barberá told The Scientist. "We have not had the time to take in consideration all the report's conclusions but it will represent from now on an obligatory reference manual."

In the meantime, said Guinovart, "COSCE will monitor the government actions with regard to the report's recommendations."

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