Drawing some young blood

January 12, 2001

The man who once said that Spanish science was in a 'critical state' will now lead its biggest research body. Rebecca Warden reports.

Rolf Tarrach's reaction to being appointed head of Spain's research council last September was total astonishment. He had never even worked for the organisation. At 52, Tarrach is better known for his forthright opinions and criticism of the state of Spanish science than for his closeness to his country's rightwing government.

Tarrach is a theoretical physicist from Valencia. He has spent most of his working life at Barcelona University, interspersed with frequent periods at Cern and other research centres in Europe and North America. Since taking the top job at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), he has been busy visiting research centres, getting to know the corridors of power, and setting goals. "These three months have been spent getting my bearings and deciding what my priorities are going to be," he said.

Founded in 1940, the CSIC is Spain's largest research organisation. It has 110 centres throughout the country and an annual budget of £265 million. With no exact equivalent in the United Kingdom, the CSIC is similar to France's Centre Nationale de Recherches Scientifiques. The bias is towards hard science, though it has centres specialising in humanities and social science as well as the Royal Botanical Gardens, the National Museum of Natural Science, oceanographic ships such as the García del Cid and the biological station of Do$ana National Park. Reluctantly, Tarrach picks out biomedicine, biology, agricultural, environmental and food science as areas in which the CSIC excels.

One of his priorities is to rejuvenate Spanish science. The average age of CSIC researchers is 47. Younger scientists find it hard to get a foot in the door. "We have a lot of young researchers, but they have no job stability," he said. "Science needs young people with original ideas who are not afraid of taking risks and making mistakes."

CSIC research posts offer civil servant status, which, in effect, means a job for life. The number of new posts is set by central government every year.

Tarrach is fighting for next year's CSIC job allocation, but he favours a more flexible system of contracts, with an initial five-year probation period leading to a more permanent position. He believes the scarcity of civil service posts combined with the system's rigidity means younger scientists have been getting a raw deal and Spanish science has been denied young blood.

A trickle of top scientists, such as cancer specialist Mariano Barbacid and sociologist Manuel Castells, have come back to work in Spain in the past few years, after distinguished careers abroad. Tarrach believes that, while their expertise will be welcome, priority must be given to the younger generation: "It is even more important that those researchers who are not yet famous, the ones who really push science forward, come back." He identifies those aged between 33 and 38, with several years of postdoctoral experience at top institutes abroad, as having particular difficulty getting on a research career track in Spain.

A second aim is to free researchers' time by boosting the number of technical support staff. "We have very few - and if they are any good, they are poached by the private sector who can pay them more," Tarrach said. "The structure of the CSIC makes it hard to pay them a competitive salary." His third priority is improving the maintenance of buildings and equipment, much of which is in urgent need of repair or upgrade.

Thirty-eight CSIC institutes are run jointly with universities, and Tarrach believes in promoting even closer links in the future. "I believe that researchers should be in touch with students. I don't like the model of a researcher who is distant from universities," he said.

This does not mean that he intends to establish many joint centres, rather that he wants to encourage existing ones to forge links. "It's a matter of consolidating or, in some cases, redirecting them," he said.

Tarrach favours using the formula of associated units; flexible agreements whereby CSIC and university researchers cooperate on specific projects. "If an associated unit does not work, no problem - you dissolve it. If it does work, this can be a good basis for starting a more formal relationship such as a joint institute," he said. He believes joint institutes allow universities and research centres to pool resources, help research teams achieve a critical mass and can generate extra funding as regional educational authorities are often willing to get involved.

Resources are another concern. Like many Spanish scientists, Tarrach believes research expenditure - 0.89 per cent of gross domestic product in 1999 compared with the European average of 1.9 per cent - is insufficient. But he is optimistic that the government will honour its pledge to boost funding over the next three years. Exactly how this should be carried out for maximum benefit is another issue. "It has to be long-term, systematic and continuous," he said. "This is how it should be done and the country can do it."

Tarrach speaks with the confidence of a man who has every intention of getting Spanish science off the sick list and providing it with a clean bill of health.


Spain puts research back on track


Spain will take on 800 new researchers over the next three months, providing a significant boost to the country's research capacity.

The jobs will consist of five-year contracts with renewal dependent on performance, according to Ramón Marimón, secretary of state for scientific and technological policy.

This new kind of contract is a big break with the past.

The idea is "to offer possibilities of continuity and stability to researchers," Marimón said when he broke the news to the Spanish senate.

This should provide universities and research centres with more flexibility to take on the people they need and to give researchers a clearer track to tenure.

Another aim of the contracts is to stem the brain drain and even to bring back some of the Spanish scientists working abroad.

 

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