Cream of science comes home

June 9, 2000

Work conditions in Spain are now in line with developed countries and are attracting back the talent, but young researchers still struggle to get a foot on the career ladder.

Top Spanish scientists are coming back to work in Spain, attracted by conditions that have become comparable to those in other developed countries. But for those starting a research career, it is an entirely different story.

Young Spanish scientists complain that inflexible employment structures and a chronic lack of job opportunities make it hard for them to get a foot on the career ladder. The government has announced moves to introduce a clearer tenure track for scientists during the current legislature, but many scientists remain sceptical.

Eugenio Santos cloned the first cancer gene at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, United States, in 1981. After 20 years of cancer research at top US institutes, he came back last year to head the new cancer research centre at Salamanca University.

"The desire to work in my own country again was always there," he says, "but now the conditions that mean you can do rigorous, competitive work are in place. This wasn't the case before."

Santos is not an isolated example. He names several other eminent researchers in his field, including Mariano Esteban, gngel Pellicer, Pere Gasc"n and Carlos L"pez Ot!n, who have returned to Spain recently.

He believes Spanish research still has some way to go, however. While the quality of research produced is good, "in terms of quantity, we still need to grow to reach a critical mass".

After two years of postdoctoral training at Oxford, organic chemist Gemma Arsequell spent six years on temporary contracts at CSIC, Spain's largest research organisation, in its centre of glycoconjugate chemistry in Barcelona. Only last month, did she obtain a permanent research position.

"There were times when I thought of leaving science," says Arsequell. "People have to be very persistent to get through."

Young scientists returning from training posts abroad are allowed to apply for a maximum of two three-year "reincorporation contracts", paying about E992 (Pounds 615) a month while they look for permanent jobs.

Apart from the job instability, Arsequell criticises the fact that contracts are linked to the duration of a specific project and temporary researchers are not allowed to apply for funding in their own right.

Funding restrictions in the early 1990s put a brake on recruitment, causing a bottleneck of unemployed young scientists to build up in Spain. When the restrictions were finally lifted and CSIC took on 300 new staff in 1998-99, the profile of successful candidates - average age 36, with about 12 years postgraduate experience and 19 scientific publications - gave an indication of the situation.

However the problem goes deeper. Most researchers point to the inflexibility of Spanish employment structures as the main culprit. CSIC researchers either are on temporary contracts or win tenure as civil servants through competitive exams. No intermediate positions such as the US five-year tenure track system exist.

Universities have even less flexibility as researchers are taken on only according to the teaching needs of departments. Some institutions have been finding ways round the system by inventing new formulas for employing research personnel.

Salamanca's cancer research centre is a private foundation, giving it the freedom to employ researchers on five-year contracts with evaluation after three years and to bring in outside experts for much shorter stints.

However, everyone agrees that national reform is needed.

The national science plan, the government's science blueprint for the next four years, promises to create 2,000 new research posts in the public sector by 2003.

It also proposes employment reforms to allow universities and research centres to take on contract researchers and offer them reasonable job security, although the details of how this will be implemented are not yet known.

Arsequell greets the news with careful optimism: "We hope the situation will change and the new government will increase funding, but we will have to wait and see."

40 researchThe Times HigherJjune 9J2000 tony stone Links from stories in this section and more funding opportunities are available to subscribers on our research microsite at www.thesis.co.uk

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