Reversing the brain drain in Spain

April 2, 1999

Spain is luring scientists back from abroad with temporary contracts but there are not enough jobs. Rebecca Warden reports from Barcelona.

Spain has never had so many highly trained scientists chasing so few jobs. People returning from years of postdoctoral training at top universities abroad report particular problems finding work.

A government scheme of temporary "reincorporation contracts," designed to ease their reintegration into the research and higher education system, has been underway since 1993 but many are now coming to the end of their contracts and still have nowhere to go.

The government is looking at ways of improving the situation. "These contracts are there to convince young scientists to return," said Mari Luz Pe$acoba, deputy director of researcher training at the ministry of education and science. "If we cannot offer them something more stable afterwards, something is wrong."

Scientists who have spent at least two years abroad can apply for contracts working on specific research projects, usually at the Spanish research council, CSIC.

Almost 900 people have passed through or have become part of the programme since its inception. Twenty-six per cent of these have gained permanent research posts at CSIC, 3.3 per cent are employed in the private sector, 2.5 per cent have temporary jobs at universities and 1.9 per cent have found permanent university jobs, according to CSIC vice-president of scientific policy Emilio Lora. However, 44 per cent of these scientists are still on the scheme and are still looking for work.

Pedro Mart!nez is a developmental biologist who returned to Spain recently after eight years at California's Institute of Technology. His reincorporation contract at the CSIC's national biotechnology centre ends soon and, as he has been unable to find a job in Spain, he is about to leave for a post at a Norwegian university. He is critical of the Spanish scheme: "It is a sop, a well-meaning one, but as there is no follow-on people end up feeling they have been taken for a ride," he said.

Ups and downs in science funding over the past 14 years have produced a large pool of highly qualified scientists without delivering a corresponding expansion in the Spanish research system. Brakes on public spending in the early 1990s mean that universities have created very few permanent teaching posts either, although temporary lecturers number about 22,000.

Young scientists claim that departments regularly reserve posts for internal candidates, so outsiders stand little chance. "It is very difficult because there are just so many lecturers who have been working for years on temporary contracts and they are given priority," said Jose Ni$o-Mora, visiting lecturer at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabre University.

Emilio Lora is convinced the public sector cannot absorb all of the talent on offer, but admits jobs for scientists in the private sector are hard to come by. "Ninety-five per cent of Spanish industry is small businesses," he said. "It is harder for them to see the need for highly qualified people." Nevertheless, he is hopeful that recent increases in the budget for science will improve the situation.

Many scientists believe the root of the problem lies in Spain's rigid employment patterns. By law, researchers and academics can only be employed as civil servants, in which case they have a job for life regardless of performance, or on temporary contracts that offer no job security or career prospects. Scientists on temporary contracts are not allowed to head research teams or apply for research funding in their own right.

The government is now considering changes to introduce more flexible job categories. One idea is to create a new kind of post, that of the contract researcher, with a five to ten-year contract and freedom to run research projects and generate funding. Scientists welcome the idea, but with no timetable set for putting these changes on the statue books, most will carry on looking for work.

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