A ripple of alarm is spreading among researchers at the Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) after its president, Emilio Lora-Tamayo, established a "spending availability" for each institute that may frequently not cover the financing needs of research projects.
The CSIC's revenues have been dropping since 2008, which marked a historical high of 879 million euros - the last year with a surplus. And now that the Economy Ministry is cutting back 180 million from its yearly contribution, the research agency is forecasting a deficit of 102 million euros. "The situation is cataclysmic," said Lora-Tamayo on Tuesday.
Early this year, the CSIC chief announced that his agency needed a bailout of 100 million euros to cover that deficit. Six months after that, the Economy Ministry, which it answers to, approved a transfer of 25 million. But the government is not contemplating raising that to 100 million - rather, the ceiling appears to be 75 million euros.
"We hope the 75 million will be sufficient," said a spokesman for the secretary of state for R&D, Carmen Vela, who mediates between CSIC and the ministry. But a CSIC spokeswoman said the institute "appreciates the effort, but we still need 100 million euros and we need it by late September so we can keep up our activities as we have until now."
We need €100 million by September so we can keep up our activities"
The CSIC represents 19 percent of all Spanish scientific output, according to its own data. There are just under 1,000 projects underway at the moment, and Lora-Tamayo says that the agency's international prestige remains intact. Meanwhile, sources close to the state secretary asserted that "the CSIC is not going to fall as an agency; if it's clear that [the money] is not enough, there will be more." But those additional funds would not be released before 2014, in any case.
The CSIC chief's report specifies that the continuity of ongoing projects is guaranteed and that personnel contracts linked to projects will be a priority. The document goes on to detail the funds available to the 115 CSIC institutes, which have a collective 25,911,240 euros to spend.
"There is no reason why activities should come to a halt," the president said in an attempt to calm CSIC's scientists.
But what the researchers are hopping mad about is Lora-Tamayo's Plan B to obtain liquidity until new ministry funds are released. Essentially, he plans to tap into the savings that individual research teams have obtained through projects, donations, contracts, patents and other fundraising initiatives. Traditionally, this money remained in the hands of whoever had obtained it, meaning each research team's director.
It's hard to choose which type of project gets priority over another one"
From now on, Lora-Tamayo wants to use it to balance the general accounts and "bring liquidity to the system." In other words, the spending priorities are being established inside the president's office, with no regard for the scheduling or financial needs of each particular lab.
Nearly 40 researchers and technicians at the agency have already signed a letter proposing to consult with outside sources regarding the legal validity of these measures.
The new limits mean there is not enough money for all the expenses that scientific work entails, some investigators complain. "It is hard to choose which type of project gets priority over another one when you have made commitments to all," explains Jesús Ávila, a researcher at the Severo Ochoa Cell Biology Center.
Many scientists feel that the situation is critical because it could put entire projects and research groups on hold. "With the kind of money that's being assigned to each institute, we cannot even pursue our ongoing projects."
Lora-Tamayo admits that this initiative penalizes the most efficient savers. The money "can be returned in an orderly, controlled manner" when the situation improves, he said.
"The current financial situation at CSIC and the measures announced by its president have shaken our agency," sums up Luis Enjuanes, a researcher at the National Biotechnology Institute.
"Many research groups such as the one I lead have made efforts for years to diversify their sources of funding, to bring them a certain dose of stability and make them competitive. That is why, besides national projects, they have applied for and obtained projects in the EU and US.
"If now the CSIC 'socializes,' as the president says - in other words, confiscates - the reserve funds obtained by the centers and labs in order to guarantee personnel costs, what's being destroyed is the programmed work of many years; it also prevents many centers and groups from operating the way they have until now, and perhaps most importantly, it completely eradicates legal security in our agency, resulting in the demoralization of those who work here."
"The more projects you have, the more you are affected by this corralito that doesn't let you use funds you had committed to specific goals," adds Francisco Guinea, a theoretical physicist at CSIC. "This measure appears to encourage people not to seek projects, not to get into those kinds of problems, because life will be easier this way."