Spanish Science Haemorrhages Talent


Spanish PhD students have the worst of both worlds. They have the responsibilities of employees, but the status of students. Their productivity is proven by their inclusion in most research papers and patents produced by their groups, and PhD students also participate in the teaching tasks of their departments. Indeed, because the number of contracted scientists and technicians is small, the Spanish research system is highly dependent on doctoral students. But this importance is not reflected in their pay and conditions.

Spanish doctoral and post-doctoral students lack basic employment rights, such as affiliation to the social security system or public health benefits. They are are considered by the Spanish administration to be students under normal training and most are supported by grants given by central or regional governments.

These grants assure a salary and, in the best cases, private health insurance, the payment of the taxes for courses and the costs of periods abroad. They do not, however, include any social security coverage such as health benefits or unemployment insurance. There is no paid sickness leave, nor maternity or paternity leave (except, since this year, for those receiving central government grants, who are now entitled to 75% of salary for up to 4 months) and the student will not benefit from a disability pension if he or she is injured in a laboratory accident.

The grant-holder salaries are meagre, being less than those of any other graduate worker (see figure) and unless a student lives with his or her family it is difficult to survive. To add insult to injury, student grant-income is taxed! An additional complication is the wide variation in salary and conditions between grants from regional governments, universities and even from different Ministries. This can create tensions between PhD students working in the same lab on different salary levels.

Level and Variability of Spanish public grants

Vertical bars show monthly stipends from 9 of the more than 60 grant types (given by the central government, public Universities and regional governments). The conditions of all those grants are quite similar (40 hours/week dedicated to research, no contribution to social security included). Horizontal lines represent basic salaries for undergraduate and a graduate level laboratory technicians working a 40 hour week. Social security contributions and benefits are included.

A. Ministry of Science and Technology

B. Ministry of Culture, Education and Sport


D. University of Barcelona

E. Almeria University

F. Madrid Politechnic University

G. Basc Government

H. Madrid Government

I. Valencian Government

Because of the difficulties he had in getting a grant at home, chemist Fernán Santamaría decided to prepare his doctorate at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, UK. "Due to lack of PhD grants offered by the Spanish and regional governments I was not able to be funded in Spain," he explains, however, "Finding a PhD in the UK took me a month. It would have taken me several months in Spain to reapply and wait for a positive or negative answer."

Spanish students also suffer from a lack of specific regulation of their rights and obligations. Despite an obligation to be exclusively engaged in research and university lecturing for 40 hours a week, most grant-holders (PhD students and postdocs) are not represented on the elected body of their centres. This means there is no opportunity for them to raise concerns about their supervision, for example. The limited number of scientists employed as researchers or technicians in Spanish universities means that the burden of much of the practical work related to the research projects being undertaken in their groups often falls to PhD students, even when those projects are peripheral to their PhD topic. In addition, most doctoral students -particularly those working in highly experimental areas- are expected to embark on the practical work of their thesis right from the first year of their PhD studies, even though in theory the preparation of the thesis starts after having obtained the Advanced Studies Degree (one year of courses plus one year of guided research -- see sidebar).

Top Priorities for Policy Makers

  • Replace the current research fellowship system by a contract system to provide PhD and post-doctoral students with the social coverage deserved by any professional.

  • Introduce explicit regulation of the rights and duties of PhDs.

  • Subject all grant-awarding institutions to a 'law of minimum' unifying the conditions of the grants/contracts, to make the situation of PhDs more homogeneous.

  • Harmonise the dates for applications for different positions, and resolve the paperwork efficiently, to eliminate the months currently spent unpaid waiting for the next grant/contract, and to avoid the loss of several months of 4-year grants.

  • Increase the number of post-doctoral positions in Spain and abroad, and introduce a proper career structure, including mechanisms for evaluation and promotion, to prevent so many PhDs from leaving research immediately after obtaining the degree, and to guarantee continuity and career progression.

Little wonder, then, that as many as 87% of those who start doctoral programmes never complete their degrees ( see sidebar). And yet, despite this astonish drop out rate, the number of qualified Ph.D.s greatly exceeds the number which can be absorbed by the Spanish research system. Doctoral studies should be the first step in a scientific career but once the doctorate has been obtained there are few possibilities to do research in Spain. Because of the highly pyramidal structure of the Spanish scientific hierarchy, young researchers have fewer and fewer opportunities as they proceed from one level to another.

Post-doctoral researchers are subject to the same poor pay and conditions as PhD students, so they can be placed in this financially precarious situation for periods of more than ten years. Mariano Oliveros, a researcher in the Instituto de Salud Carlos III in Madrid, is 35 years old and is still surviving on a grant. Careers are often interrupted by long periods of time waiting for the next grant. Eva Escudero also works in the Instituto de Salud Carlos III and has two children; she says, "I'd like to have another child, but when my present grant ends I'm expected to continue to work waiting for the next grant, so how can I pay for a baby-sitter if I'm not paid in the meantime?" Because of the lack of available post-doctoral grants and beaurocractic delays in concluding grant awards, people who want to continue their scientific careers are often forced to work without pay for several months (and without hope of getting back pay when the grant finally comes through) in order not to lose contact with their research group.

Because of the lack of posts at home Spanish Ph.D.s usually spend many years working abroad, but then find it even more difficult to return to the Spanish research system. No surprise then that a high percentage of students abandon their studies before or just after obtaining the doctoral degree to take a better rewarded job, or decide to pursue their scientific careers abroad. Typical is Patricio Dominguez, currently a post-doc at the Natural History Museum in London, UK, who is thinking of continuing his career in the USA.

Even job opportunities outside academic research are limited. There is no demand for doctorates from Spanish industry since private investment in R&D is much lower than in other European countries. His experience in the UK informs Santamaría that Ph.Ds in other countries benefit from the recognition that they are qualified to perform a wide range of jobs, a situation which does not occur in Spain. As a consequence, the Spanish scientific system suffers continual loss of its members by emigration.

Spain's young scientists are taking action to try to improve their lot. The Federación de Jóvenes Investigadores (FJI, Young Researchers' Federation) is a nationwide organisation formed in April 2000 by local associations composed of researchers that have no stable position in the research system. This includes PhD students, post-docs, researchers with insecure contracts and graduate or undergraduate technicians. The aims of the FJI are to fight for better conditions for young researchers and to demand an increase in R&D budgets in order to improve the Spanish research system. The FJI are in negotiation with the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, and with regional governments and several Universities and Public Research Organizations. In February 2001 more than 3000 people attended a demonstration in Madrid, and its Manifesto for reform ( has been signed by more than 3000 senior scientists.

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