Two years ago we published an open letter from a Spanish astrophysicist to Mariano Rajoy on the occasion of her leaving Spanish science for a job in the US. On the eve of the Spanish elections, she writes again.
I apologise for writing you another open letter. I did try to write to you at your office but that letter was returned undelivered (addressee absent).
I just wanted to express my gratitude that, after four years of careful negligence,we have finally been gifted with a State Research Agency. Ciencia (science), a word spoken so commonly in your Cabinet as part of the word paciencia(patience), will finally get a brand new agency to distribute its miseries. I don’t blame you for not realising that the loss of 12,000 researchers that the country has suffered since 2010 has had little to do with the lack of such an agency. I know you like dominoes, so let’s use them to help you assimilate this figure: stand 12,000 of them, side by side, on their edge. Yes, I know, it will take time and effort – just as it took the State time and effort to train 12,000 researchers in the first place. After this arduous process, go ahead and hit the first piece. Such a hit, but inflicted year after year, is characteristic of your government’s science policy.
Not all the pieces may yet have fallen but even the most strongly grounded ones are staggering, as evidenced by the decapitation of some of your leading centres of excellence. What the Spanish scientific system needs right now is not just an agency, but a whole range of actions. I know you’ll recall the actions to which I refer – we outlined them a couple of years ago in a letter signed by 80,000 people, which, following the largest demonstration of researchers in Spanish history, we were graciously allowed to tape to the locked gates of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, where science has languished during your period of office. In any case, let me remind you of some of these measures.
What Spanish science needs is a significant increase in civil R&D spending, slashed by 42% since 2009, leaving the country relegated to the bottom of the EU league table of R&D investment as percentage of GDP. Spanish science needs a real multi-annual budget, like that of the European Research Council, not the bogus multi-annuality promised for the new Agency. It needs an increase in the budget for research grants, the life-blood of the system, which has suffered a 41% cut since 2009. It needs a serious commitment to respect the deadlines of calls for funding, training and fellowship programmes, which in recent years have suffered systematic delays of up to one year, creating confusion and uncertainty in the scientific community. It needs to be rid of the huge bureaucracy that hampers all administrative processes related to research (such as recruitment and procurement), and which wastes significant amounts of scarce national and European funds. It needs a State Treaty that allows medium- and long-term planning of R&D human and financial resources, freeing them from the mood swings of political cycles; this was the goal of the Parliamentary Agreement for Science, that in December 2013 was signed by all political parties with parliamentary representation except for yours.
Spanish science needs a government that, instead of bragging about the “Spanish science” done abroad by our scientists in exile, stops denying the evident brain drain and takes action to strengthen R&D human resources, because the percentage of the workforce dedicated to research activities in Spain is well below the average of the EU-27 and a long way behind Europe’s leading economies. It needs urgent measures to rejuvenate the workforce in research centres and universities, which increasingly look more like daycare centres for the elderly, with half of all Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) researchers due to retire over the next 5 years. It needs effective measures to combat inbreeding and increase the mobility of researchers, and needs rid of all the irrational and ancient administrative obstacles, unheard of in other countries, which make it almost impossible to recruit researchers trained abroad.
What Spanish science needs is not a government that turns a deaf ear towards the research community but rather one that puts in place a politically independent high-level advisory council for science, with a significant proportion of members elected by the research community. It needs a government that abandons the idea of sustaining an absurdly inefficient 17+1 different research systems (those of the 17 Autonomous Communities plus that of the State). It needs a government that doesn’t just rely on research policy made in Brussels but considers the impact of “excellence” driven policies and aims for a better balance between “bottom-up” competitive research, to foster diversity, and ”top-down” oriented research to address specific scientific challenges of national interest. It needs a government that legislates to increase the autonomy of research centres, so that they can plan strategically, be more transparent and accountable, and gain access to private funding.
It was a touching gesture on your part to create the State Research Agency in the final days of your term. This was, after all, one of our demands. But what can it do in the current climate? The Spanish science system needs, not simply a new letterhead (assuming that the agency, created with zero budget, can afford it), but effective measures to place the Spanish R&D system at the level of the country’s economic potential. I know you will be reflecting hard on these issues just as you have been doing, silently, these last four years.
Unfortunately, as an emigrant scientist, I will not have the opportunity to extend your reflections by voting for you on Sunday (and neither, due to recent legislation, will 94% of the 1.87 million Spanish emigrants entitled to vote). But please, allow me at least to send you, from my scientific exile, my best regards.