Austerity’s reign in Spain may drive its researchers to greener pastures

Elite league's v-cs say Madrid's 25% cut to science will cause long-term harm. Elizabeth Gibney writes

May 17, 2012

The heads of some of Europe's leading research-intensive universities have warned Spain's government that significant cuts to its science budget may lead to an exodus of researchers from the country.

Speaking to journalists at the League of European Research Universities' 10th anniversary conference in Barcelona on 10 May, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said young Spanish researchers may have no choice but to leave.

"There are brilliant young investigators and researchers in Spain, and in the mobile world we operate in today they will have no option but to seek European funding or relocate," he said.

Adding that other countries around the world were looking to welcome such academic refugees with open arms, Sir Leszek said: "As a European I firmly believe I would like those investigators to stay in Europe and help build the economic growth. I think national governments should build their policies accordingly."

Spain's conservative government, led by prime minister Mariano Rajoy, announced plans to reduce science spending by 25 per cent in 2012 as part of its € billion (£22 billion) "austerity budget" set out last month.

The cut was larger than indicated in provisional figures announced in December and greater than the average reduction of 17 per cent across all Spanish ministries.

Under the plans, competitive grants, public research institutes, training schemes and fellowship programmes are all likely to be hit hard. But speaking at the conference, Carmen Vela, Spain's secretary of state for research, development and innovation, sought to defend the move.

"It has been impossible to avoid a certain control of scientific (spending) as part of the overall national reform of public spending," she acknowledged. "Now the aim is to minimise this impact."

Professor Vela, a well-respected researcher and entrepreneur, said that the creation of a new Spanish Research Agency, to be launched before the summer, would increase efficiency and make up for some of the shortfall.

Increased participation in European funding programmes would also be a remedy, she said.

"Unfortunately our universities have only 50 per cent of the participation of other universities in Europe (in such programmes)," Professor Vela told the conference.

But research leaders in attendance did not appear to be convinced by her arguments.

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, highlighted the challenge that Spanish universities would face in seeking such funding.

"Spanish universities need to be able to compete with universities across Europe for European funding," he later told journalists.

"We need to portray as clearly as possible to government the risks that come with budget cuts that cannot be absorbed overnight."

He also stressed the ease with which cuts could reverse years of training and investment, a comment likely to hit home in a country where research has only recently begun to recover after decades of under-investment.

More veiled warnings about Spain's approach came from the European Commission.

Its director general of research and innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, said the Commission's own proposal to boost research and development funding by 43 per cent showed that it was "not only talking about the knowledge economy but taking decisions to invest in it".

Using the examples of Finland and Germany in the early 1990s, he said that the countries that had invested in research, even while cutting harshly elsewhere, had best weathered the current economic storm.

He implored university leaders to take the message back to their governments that they needed to be "courageous" in the face of financial pressures across the Continent.

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