Not so much a brain drain as forced exile

Spending cuts are driving researchers and scientists to look for a future abroad

J. A. Aunión
Research into melanomas at the National Oncology Center.
Research into melanomas at the National Oncology Center.ÁLVARO GARCÍA

For the last three years, Spain's scientific community has been warning about the impact of government austerity measures: the deep spending cuts aimed at reducing the country's deficit could mean the dismemberment of a research structure that has taken many years, a great deal of money, and much effort to create. Academic institutions' funding budgets are being slashed, leaving many of the country's best and brightest with no choice but to look for opportunities abroad. Spain's brain drain is not a voluntary process: to all intents and purposes, the country is driving away the very people who should be leading the next generation of scientists and researchers.

People like Nuria Martí. The 33-year-old is just one of those directly affected by the government's 31-percent (1.4-billion-euro) cuts to R&D between 2009 and 2012. Martí was fired from the Prince Felipe Research Center (CIPF) in Valencia in 2011. She has just signed off on one of the most important works on stem-cell research in recent years at the Oregon Health & Science University, in the United States, where she now works.

Martí's case made the headlines in Spain, as has that of Diego Martínez, a 30-year-old recently named the European Physics Society's young physicist of the year, but who has been turned down for a grant by the post-doctoral Ramón y Cajal Program, a scheme set up in 2001 to "strengthen the capacity of the research and development groups and institutions in Spain by injecting new blood into the system," according to its first call for proposals. Martínez and the many others turned down for funding have no recourse to appeal.

Bleak outlook for research centers

  • More cuts.Spain's spending on R&D in 2011 amounted to 1.33 percent of GDP, down from 1.39 percent in the previous year. The Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has delayed until 2020 Spain's spending target of two percent, initially set for 2011. Between 2009 and 2012, R&D spending fell by 31 percent, from 4.174 billion to 2.860 billion euros. The spending cuts for 2013 amount to 13.9 percent, according to the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE).
  • Fewer researchers. In 2011, there were a total of 215,079 people working on R&D (of whome 130,235 were actually researchers, with the rest being ancillary staff), a fall on 2009, when the figure stood at 220,777 people, 133,803 of whom were researchers. The current figure is lower than that of 2008.
  • Salaries and grants. The budget of the National R&D Fund, used to finance the government's national research plan and to pay the salaries of top-level scientists on the Ramón y Cajal Program and for the Juan de la Cierva research access scheme, among other intiatives, has been reduced from 547 million in 2009 to 342 million euros in 2012, and 273 million for this year, according to the COSCE. The result is that the number of places available through the Ramón y Cajal and Juan de la Cierva programs has fallen from 600 in 2011 to just 400 last year.
  • Delays. The four main programs hiring researchers and technicians have yet to finalize contracts for 2012. The State R&D Plan for 2013, which funds research carried out by thousands of scientists, has also been delayed. Academics say that this delay will mean that there will be no places offered this year.
  • European space projects. Spain has cut its budget for the European Space Agency (ESA) by half for 2013 to 102 million euros. The respective space industries of member states will win research contracts for an amount equal to what they have put into the program, meaning an overall cut in projects. As of last November Spain owes 164 million euros to the ESA.
  • Endangered centers. "As far as this body is concerned, any cuts mean the closure of some centers and activities," said Rafael Rodrigo, then the president of the National Research Council (CSIC), a little over a year ago. At the end of 2012, Spain's leading scientific body was looking at implementing a harsh adjustment plan to avoid having to lay off large numbers of staff and researchers. The Valencia-based CIPF sacked 114 of its 250 staff in 2011, the majority of them scientists. The PP-run regional government said it had no choice if it wanted to guarantee the long-term survival of the institutions. Other centers, such as the Calar Alto space observatory in Almería are also in danger.

Nobody working at the Ramón y Cajal Program questions the body's selection process, based on international criteria. But they do point out that the cuts mean that growing numbers of young scientists are being denied an opportunity to pursue research in Spain. In 2011, 250 grants were available; last year that figure fell to 175.

It's the same story with the Juan de la Cierva Program, aimed at helping young people build a career as researchers: in the last two years it has cut the number of grants it offers from 350 to 225. In 2004, some 3,255 candidates applied for 650 places on both programs; that figure has now become 5,032 for 400 places. Regional government-funded research programs have also been cut back - and many canceled altogether - in recent years.

"We have been able to award just two post-doctoral grants in Contemporary History; around seven people were turned down who a couple of years ago would have been given funding," says Enrique Moradiellos, professor of history at the University of Extremadura. Moradiellos is a member of one of the Ramón y Cajal Program's panels that assesses projects able to attract outside investment.

When making their decision, such panels must take into account the amount of work candidates have published, how well it has been received internationally by other academics, whether they have led teams, or spent time abroad studying and researching. The first stage in the application process is a peer review. This involves a detailed examination by national and international experts. Grants are for five years, and the stated objective is to help candidates secure a long-term position, and for them to remain in Spain.

A spokesman for the Economy Ministry, responsible for the Secretariat of State for Research, led by Carmen Vela, says that while fewer places have been offered this year, more money has been made available: up from 45.9 million euros to 54 million euros to allow for an increase in personnel and teams, as well as funding to allow researchers to find a job once their five-year grants run out.

The problem is that the cuts have "discouraged" many young researchers, says Joaquim Casellas, a 34-year-old researcher currently being funded by the Ramón y Cajal Program at Barcelona's Autonomous University. "Those of us still on the program can see that the hopes of finding a long-term position when our grants are finished are diminishing, while at the same time there are fewer and fewer places available."

Casellas had already led two research teams by 2009 when he was awarded his grant, having spent a year at the University of California-Davis, a leading institution in research into cattle breeding. He had also had around 20 articles published in academic journals. He says the selection criteria are "fair enough," but admits: "I would find it very difficult now to get the kind of funding I was given."

To make matters worse, what little funding is available is now increasingly subject to delay. Applications for 2012 have just been approved, and contracts won't be signed until the end of this year, meaning that those who cannot afford to wait will be left behind.

Moradiellos agrees that Spain has a brain drain. But the Economy Ministry says that there is no evidence to suggest that Spain is losing its talent.

"It's no surprise to see people moving around. Talent goes where the money and resources are, as well as where it can develop and build a business; or it stays where there is no funding, and then tends to languish. This has always been the case. Holding on to talent in Spain by maintaining certain levels of funding and opportunity is the best thing this country can do to assure itself of a future among the leading nations of the world; otherwise, we will be held back," says Joan Massagué, a Spanish researcher now working in the United States.

“The government could have a flagship system on the cheap”


Joan Guinovart is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Barcelona, where he heads the Biomedical Research Institute, or IRB.

Question. Is it a good thing for science for researchers to work in different countries?

Answer . It is essential, aside from being an intrinsic part of the system. Science is a globalized activity, concentrated in a few places around the world. Talent looks for the best working conditions, and it is logical that there is movement. The problem is when an incoming movement of scientists does not match the outward flow.

Q. What is going on?

A. We thought that we were going to become a world power, one of the big nations in terms of science and research. But the current situation is ridiculous. We have a government that is either ignorant of the enormous value of the talent and knowledge in this country, or refuses to see the impact it can make on the future.

Q. Why are scientists leaving to work abroad?

A. This is the same as soccer. If we do not have decent teams, the good players won't come. We have to decide what sort of country we want this to be, and to create the appropriate environment. If the people who have the ability to add value all leave, we lose the chance to create wealth.

Q. The problem is more to do with society overall rather than those who are packing up.

A. They will miss Spain, but they will have a good life, a dignified life, with good pay and plenty of opportunities. But their leaving will impoverish the rest of society.

Q. Is it about money?

A. Not solely. What is needed is a tiny amount compared to the money injected into Bankia or in building high-speed train lines that nobody wants. The government could have a flagship system for very little money, a source of pride and hope.

Q. What needs to be done?

A. The solution is cheap, and requires reforming our model. At some point, money will be needed, but even if there weren't any, we could build a flexible, agile, and efficient system. There are examples we could follow.

Q. You are proud of the institution you run.

A. We are a modern, autonomous center, run by a board, and with a director that has real power. The center is managed in the interests of research, and board members understand that their future depends on that of the institute. We have no brain drain; it's the opposite, in fact.

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