Scientific research agency CSIC feels the ravages of belt-tightening

Economy Ministry to advance 44 million euros assigned for ongoing projects

CSIC workers, who last week handed in a petition with 230,000 signatures calling for the agency’s viability to be guaranteed.
CSIC workers, who last week handed in a petition with 230,000 signatures calling for the agency’s viability to be guaranteed.KIKE PARA

The Economy Ministry will advance Spain’s public scientific research agency, the CSIC, just enough money to save it from collapse.

The 44 million euros (35 million for projects and 10 million for personnel) aims to bring some liquidity to the CSIC, Europe’s third-largest public research organization, which needs a bailout of 100 million according to its president, Emilio Lora-Tamayo. So far, the CSIC has received 25 million euros.

The emergency measure pushes the agency’s financial problems back to 2014, since the advance will cover the costs of ongoing projects. The secretary of state for research and development, Carmen Vela, on Thursday made a commitment to make a “special” contribution in 2014.

The CSIC represents 19 percent of all Spanish scientific output, according to its own data. There are slightly under 1,000 projects underway at the moment. But its main problem is that it has seen a cut in its budget since 2009 of 500 million euros. Early this year, CSIC said it needed a bailout of 100 million euros to cover that deficit, while the government replied that no more than 75 million would be available. “The situation is cataclysmic,” Lora-Tamayo said recently.

A giant in figures

Maximum expansion. In 2010 the CSIC had 14,144 workers. Of these, 4,382 were researchers with science doctorates, 3,116 were researchers in training, and 96 were conducting post-doctorate research and specialized work.

Personnel. Approximately half of the CSIC's workers are researchers, and gender parity is observed: 51 percent are women and 49 percent are men.

Decline. Figures show that in November 2011, when the Popular Party came to power, the staff had already fallen to 13,546 people.

Deficit. The CSIC has been in the red since 2009. First it was the Economy Ministry's contribution that fell, and then, in 2010, the agency's own funds began to dwindle.

The situation inside the labs is critical. Many CSIC centers, even the headquarters, shut down for two weeks in the summer to save on maintenance costs. Meanwhile, figures released by the government show that some centers have disappeared altogether, such as the Doñana Biological Reserve inside the Doñana Natural Park in Huelva, a Unesco Heritage Site and home to the critically endangered Iberian lynx. Also gone are the Pyrenees Ecology Institute in Huesca, the Institute of Applied Physics and the Institute of Economic Geology, both in Madrid.

Of the 143 CSIC centers open in 2011 only 40 have maintained or increased their staff numbers, according to official figures. Those that have lost the most workers include two cell biology and genetic research facilities in Valladolid and Madrid. The prestigious National Center for Cancer Research, CNIO, needs a four-million-euro bailout.

The state-run agency also lost 10.4 percent of its personnel, not counting interns, between November 2011 and June 2013. This information was relayed by the government to the Socialist deputy Miguel Ángel Heredia, who had requested the figures.

In a desperate effort to obtain liquidity, Lora-Tamayo had recently announced a plan to tap into the savings that individual research teams have obtained through projects, donations, contracts, patents and other fund-raising initiatives. Traditionally, this money remained in the hands of each research team’s director. Dozens of researchers expressed their discontent with this plan.

As for personnel cuts, the staff has dropped from 12,928 to 11,582, and interns have been reduced from 618 to 435, representing a 29.6 percent drop. This illustrates one of the effects of the spending cuts: training of younger people is being curtailed, thereby mortgaging the future of research in Spain. There is another factor at play here as well: the law establishes that interns now have to have contracts and that employers must pay their social security, making them less attractive to hire.

Some key research departments have been axed entirely

Although the data requested by the Socialist deputy reflects the expenditures since the center-right Popular Party (PP) reached power in November 2011, the CSIC’s reports show when the decline began. In 2008, the agency had 12,317 workers, of whom 2,798 were researchers in training (interns). The following year, new hirings brought the staff up to 13,538, reaching a maximum of 14,144 in 2010, with 3,116 interns.

This shows, as Lora-Tamayo points out, that expansionist policies were followed despite the fact that the greatest state cuts took place between 2009 and 2010, with the crisis in full swing, when the CSIC’s budget fell from 571 million to 442 million euros. The new management team has implemented spending cuts that go as far as reducing the use of air conditioning and heating, but even that has not been enough. According to the agency’s own numbers, between 2011 and 2013 expenses fell by 104 million euros but revenues also fell by 130 million euros.

But the divestment has just begun. The government has established that from now on, for every 10 employees who retire or leave the organization, only one may be hired to replace them. This means, according to Lora-Tamayo, that in the last year only five researchers have been hired.