Spanish prime minister Jose Mar!a Aznar has created a new ministry in charge of research as one of the first acts of his new government. The ministry of science and technology is to be headed by Anna Birules, a Catalan businesswoman and economist. Spanish scientists have given a qualified welcome to a move they hope will push research higher up the national agenda, but some still have their doubts.
The new ministry takes over responsibility for research from the ministry of education. It brings under one roof research institutes until now distributed between nine different ministries. These include Spain's largest research body, the Higher Council of Scientific Research, which coordinates 111 research centres throughout Spain, the Astrophysics Institute of the Canaries, home to some of Europe's top observatories, and institutes dealing with agriculture, oceanography, nuclear and renewable energy and geology. It will also coordinate Spain's participation in international projects such as Cern and the European Space Agency.
The choice of Birules as minister was a surprise to all. She is not a member of the ruling Popular Party, but was seen as hard-working and successful in her previous job as head of telecommunications company Retevisi"n.
One of her first tasks will be to oversee the implementation of the national science plan, which will boost research funding from its current level of 0.9 per cent of Spain's gross domestic product to 2 per cent in four years. Birules can also be expected to revitalise the links between universities and industry to encourage technology transfer.
Spanish scientists are generally pleased that a dedicated science ministry has been established. "Spain has suffered from a certain deficit in research and development funding compared with other European countries," said Carlos Agelet, deputy director of research at the Polytechnic University of Cataluna's School of Civil Engineering. "I hope this will help to improve the ratio."
Francisco Tomas, vice-rector of research at Valencia University, believes the new ministry is "a step forward". However, he is concerned at what he sees as the government's tendency to concentrate on boosting business involvement in research, leaving universities, which do the vast majority of research, feeling neglected. "It is true that a lot must be done to increase private investment in R&D, but this should never be done at the expense of the public sector," Tomas said.