SCIENCE RESEARCH

Lower funding and red tape holding back Spain’s top science agency

Saved from bankruptcy by a public bailout, the CSIC says future still looks “tough”

The number of researchers at CSIC is expected to fall to 2007 levels.
The number of researchers at CSIC is expected to fall to 2007 levels.ULY MARTÍN / EL PAÍS

The CSIC, Spain’s largest scientific research agency, paints a very pessimistic forecast for itself. If the current financial situation keeps up, by 2017 the number of in-house researchers will have fallen back to 2007 levels; no contracts will be offered, either for pre- or post-doc work; there will be no scholarships until 2016; and scientific production is expected to fall as of this year, due to dwindling revenues and a reduced staff.

This is the picture that emerges from the CSIC’s Action Plan 2014-2017, which reflects a drastic reduction in government funding of 32 percent since 2009.

Essentially, the plan shows the research agency falling back a full decade in terms of personnel and funding.

And that is after it was bailed out last year with an extraordinary injection of 95 million euros in public money after teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

“The horizon is still looking tough,” writes CSIC president Emilio Lora Tamayo in his introduction to the Action Plan. Yet he adds that “the possibilities of pulling through are more than real.”

Government funding to the CSIC has been reduced by 32 percent since 2009

Of all research personnel in Spain, the CSIC employs six percent and produces 20 percent of all scientific output. Universities as a whole put out a lot more, but they also employ much larger numbers of researchers.

At the international level, the CSIC is usually compared with the Max Planck Society in Germany and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.

Current forecasts show the research body employing around 3,700 researchers in 2017, compared with 4,363 in 2010.

“This large drop, focused mainly on hired personnel and interns, puts many research groups at risk, as well as units and services that are essential to the development of scientific research,” the Action Plan notes.

Meanwhile, the average age of CSIC personnel is 53, which is dangerously high for the field of science. And considering the possibilities for hiring, there are few prospects of bringing in new blood.

The Action Plan 2014-2017, approved in December of last year but as yet unreleased on the CSIC website, demonstrates the dismal differences between the expectations of growth during the previous period (2010-2013) and the reality that has since set in.

That earlier plan forecast a budget extending to over one billion euros in 2013. The real figure was 599 million euros, plus the emergency 95 million in state aid to keep the CSIC up and running.

“The 2010-2013 plan was designed in an economic context teetering between bonanza and recession, although this latter condition was not taken into account during the drafting,” reads the new plan.

As well as diminishing government funding, the agency has also seen a dip in its own fundraising capacity (contracts with companies, patents and so on), which has dropped 49 percent in three years.

On top of the dismal financial situation, the CSIC is also bogged down by structural problems. Critics have often complained about the fact that CSIC researchers are public servants who must deal with a bureaucratic, highly static system. Many scientists have left as a result. Open, competitive hirings are also hindered by a strongly centralized management style that discourages autonomous work by satellite institutes.

CSIC’s president has admitted that there are other research centers out there “with more modern and flexible management systems and structures.”

Yet the CSIC’s scientific output, measured in published papers by its researchers, has improved notably in recent years, with an annual increase of 8.7 percent. This, despite the budget cuts and staff reductions.

“This apparent contradiction can be explained by the logic of scientific activity, since there is a gap between investment, the generation of results, and their publication,” states the plan. “But this trend cannot be sustained, and it is to be expected that these indicators will suffer throughout the period 2014-2017.”