Brussels, 30 Mar 2004
Following a pre-election public statement by renowned Spanish scientists calling on political parties to sign a 'state pact' on science, the new socialist government, elected in Spain on 14 March, has announced that it will take specific steps to reform the country's science policy.
The steps include an increase in spending for research and development (R&D), the creation of new ministerial and funding bodies, measures to improve the mobility of researchers, as well as their status, and new laws relating to assisted reproduction and therapeutic cloning.
Over the past 25 years, Spain has undergone significant economic progress without a proportional investment in research, as highlighted by the scientists' petition. The new government is set to address this by bringing the country's currently under-funded research and development up to speed with its economic position.
The first step, said Jaime Diez Lissavetzky, spokesperson for the Socialists' Parliamentary Science Commission, will be to create a new Science and Education Ministry, merging the currently separate Science and Technology, and Education and Culture ministries. It is hoped this move will improve the mobility of researchers between universities and the research centres under the Higher Research Council. Furthermore, said Mr Lissavetzky, the move will allow for the creation of 'mixed' centres, combining both types of institution.
The second step will be to increase the research budget by 25 percent every year until 2008 so as to double investment in R&D. This sustained annual increase will mean that the R&D budget will increase to two per cent of gross domestic product from today's 0.96 per cent. Significantly, Mr Lissavetzky said, all R&D expenditure for military purposes will be excluded from the budget. The previous administration had been heavily criticised by scientists and the general public for including military expenses, sometimes up to 40 per cent, within the research budget.
In another bid to increase transparency, the National Plan on Research and Development will be discussed in parliament. The previous government did not ask for any parliamentary input before formulating the first National Plan (1998-2003).
Fourthly, said Mr Lissavetzky, for the first time in Spain, postgraduate students in the third and fourth years will be awarded contracts, possibly leading to permanent employment.
The government will also create a new body, called the Research Funding Agency and run by scientists, which will be linked to any future European Research Council.
Finally, the new government will revise the recently passed law on assisted reproduction, making it more flexible and less restrictive. For example, said Mr Lissavetzky, therapeutic cloning will be an 'open matter' to prevent the clashes that have occurred between regional and national governments.
'The victory of the socialists opens a new era of hope for scientists,' said Joan Guinovart, signatory of the State Pact for Science and first president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies, a new 20,000-member body.
Jordi Petriz, a stem cell researcher, also welcomed the planned reforms, but expressed concern that the creation of a single Education and Science Ministry might lead to more bureaucracy.
Margarita Salas, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, said that another important issue to be tackled as soon as possible is the inadequacy of science education in schools. 'Right now, students can enter university without having studied any scientific matter,' she said.