Spain turns its back on science

Other countries do not invest in R&D&i because they are rich – they are rich because they invest in R&D&i.

Patricia Fernández de Lis
A Barcelona summit on digital technologies.
A Barcelona summit on digital technologies.EFE

Carl Sagan, the US astronomer who popularized science in the 1980s, said it better than anybody else: “We are surrounded by science and technology, but nobody knows anything about science and technology.”

Digital life, the consequences of knowing what’s inside our genome, artificial intelligence, Big Data, self-driving cars and even WhatsApp: scientific and technological innovation makes our life better, even if we don’t quite understand how it works.

Only 14% of Spanish citizens have an interest in science and technology, compared with 25% who have no interest at all, according to the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology.

Being pro-science is the only way we make sure that America continues to lead the world

US President Barack Obama

And this traditional disregard for science at the popular level is reflected at the political level, turning a mistake into a downright disaster.

Science, technology and innovation represent the fundamental productive factor in all the world’s biggest economies, and their main source of wealth. The United States, Sweden, Finland, Japan and South Korea do not invest in R&D&i because they are rich – they are rich because they invest in R&D&i.

The US spends over 2.8% of its GDP on science and technology, and its own government asserts that this effort can be credited for over half of the country’s economic and industrial development since WWII. Science and technology get constant cash injections, even during the worst crisis years.

“Science and technology helped make America the greatest country on Earth,” said President Barack Obama in an interview on Popular Science.

Meanwhile, Spanish investment falls and rises depending on how the economic winds blow: between 2002 and 2008 there was a considerable effort to catch up with our EU partners, but from 2010 to 2014 there was a 10% accumulated drop in the budget allocation for science and technology, according to the latest Cotec report.

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This drop is very painful to Spanish scientists, which have been forced to seek out European funds or leave the country. And this is just the beginning.

“The effects of the public spending cuts on the results of research activity remain to be seen, due to the timeframes in research processes,” warns the OECD in a report.

However, Spanish companies and citizens are pioneers when it comes to adopting the results of innovation and technology. Spanish firms rank above average in digitalization, according to a recent report by PwC. Spain is also the European country with the greatest penetration of social networking and instant messaging apps. But the innovation is being produced by others, for the most part.

“Being pro-science is the only way we make sure that America continues to lead the world,” said Obama in Popular Science.

During their first and only televised debate, none of the four main candidates to be Spain’s next prime minister was asked about their plans to invest in science and innovation. Nor did any of them judge it relevant to discuss the consequences of living with our backs to science.

Yet there are consequences: a report by the Civic Opinion Center says that if Spain had invested annually in R&D the same percentage as other OECD countries have been investing since 1970, our per capita income would have been 20% higher by the year 2005.

English version by Susana Urra.

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