Promises for Spanish science

As elections near, political parties vow to support a 'pact' for invigorating research

Feb 26, 2004
Xavier Bosch( )

Spanish politicians, facing a general election in coming weeks, have pledged their support for a public statement made by 11 renowned Spanish scientists who called on political parties to sign up to a “state pact” on science.

In a comprehensive document sponsored by the Spanish Society of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (SEBBM), the scientists last week (February 19) outlined specific steps to bring the country';s currently underfunded research and development community up to speed with its economic position.

Over the past 25 years, the country has undergone significant economic progress without a proportional investment in research, say the signatories, including SEBBM president, Jesús Ávila, and Miguel Beato, director of Barcelona';s Center for Genomic Regulation.

“The state research budget has stagnated over the last 10 years,” says the report, which proposes sustained annual increases in research and development budgets so that it reaches 2% of gross domestic product by 2010, from 0.96% at present.

The signatories also call for a significant increase in the number of scientists in the country, taking the current figure of 4.2 scientists per 10,000 inhabitants up to 8.3 in the same timeframe.

Transparency when the annual budgets are disclosed is also essential, they say, so that it is clear what goes to military research and what goes to civil research.

The report also asks the government to spend the research budgets in full each year, a reference to the fact that money devoted to research projects approved by the National Plan on Science and Technology has not all been spent in recent years.

Presenting the report in Madrid';s Molecular Biology Center, cosigner and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Margarita Salas, said that in addition to a lack of political willingness, the current problems are partly due to inadequate science education in school. “Right now, students can enter university without having studied any scientific matter,” Salas said.

Mariano Rajoy of the right-wing Partido Popular party, currently in power, has adopted several of the pact recommendations as his own. If, as anticipated, he is the next prime minister after the election on March 14, Rajoy says he will increase the annual research and development budget by 10% every year from 2004 to 2008, introduce some 9500 new scientists into the system, and create a Science Council.

He also promised to boost science education at school level and stated that he would create a National Center of Evaluation.

“I offer a pact to all political parties, trade unions and businessmen to approve the first Law of Science,” Rajoy said.

On February 23, socialist candidate José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero also said that his party fully backs the State Pact.

Joan Guinovart, cosigner and director of the Biomedical Research Institute at the Barcelona Science Park, told The Scientist the “State Pact must stay above any political party.”

What is important, he said, is that the prime minister has a vision of working for the future of science. The new government must actually be committed to science “even though there are no immediate benefits,” Guinovart said.

Jesús Ávila, SEBBM president, told The Scientist that he has received input from both the Partido Popular and the Socialist Party and that both “agree with the pact,” as in fact they both indicate in their own electoral programs.

“I just hope they fulfill it,” Ávila noted.