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.
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.