Unprecedented Uncertainty for Young Spanish Scientists

José Manuel Fernández

José M. Fernández

CREDIT: Leticia Casañ/José M. Fernández

Early-career researchers in Spain were among the first to suffer the consequences of the nation's economic crisis. But last week, things got much worse for many of them when Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) President Emilio Lora-Tamayo warned that the agency was facing an impending "cataclysm" due to deep financial trouble.

A hundred million Euros in the red, CSIC decided to reduce research spending as it awaits financial help from the government. For everyone at CSIC— early-career researchers in particular—this means more delays and uncertainty.

"We are seeing how our contracts are running to an end and … cannot see … how we could continue here."—José Manuel Fernández

"The latest news in the latest weeks are even more catastrophic because we have to slow down the pace of our projects for the lack of funds … and we have no guarantee about what will happen in the next few months," says José Manuel Fernández, who is a postdoctoral fellow of the CSIC Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Madrid and a spokesperson for the Spanish Federation of Young Investigators. "To try to plan to do research in these conditions is, well, very, very difficult."

With 125 institutes, more than 50 of which are joint ventures with universities and research bodies, CSIC is the largest research institution in Spain. It covers all disciplines in the sciences and humanities, employing some 3000 early-career researchers and accounting for 20% of Spain's scientific output. Last week, Lora-Tamayo said that the prestigious institution needed €100 million from the government to remain operational until the end of the year. So far the government has provided €25 million, which CSIC says is enough to keep things running until early fall. The government promised another €50 million by late September, and to come up with additional, unspecified solutions later as needed. But the economic situation in the country is so dire that many researchers worry the money will not arrive in time, or in sufficient quantity, to save CSIC from looming bankruptcy.

As CSIC waits for government help, Lora-Tamayo has taken drastic measures to keep its many institutes afloat. CSIC capped institutes' spending on research and asked them to prioritize, first on paying the salaries of staff on short-term contracts and second on finishing research projects whose noncompletion in 2013 would mean having to give money back.

But, in a letter to the Spanish Secretary of State for Science made public today, a hundred CSIC directors warned that the money provided is "not sufficient to get us to the end of the year, not even prioritizing the expenses as indicated." The situation is such, they add, that it "will lead to the gradual paralysis of the research activity of the centers starting at the end of this month of July."

Fernández—who investigates the rehabilitation of degraded agricultural soils and their carbon sequestration potential for climate change mitigation—considers himself "lucky" because he managed to gather all the samples he needed before the budget restrictions. But "many people have had to slow down" their projects, and sometimes stop them altogether, he says.

Even projects that appear to meet CSIC's priority criteria are suffering delays due to added layers of bureaucracy and confusion, says Elisa Garrido, a Ph.D. student in the science history department at the Center of Human and Social Sciences in Madrid, in an e-mail to Science Careers. Many researchers are also cancelling plans to attend conferences because it isn't clear whether and when their expenses will be reimbursed. Since the measures were announced on 2 July, "The situation has been very chaotic in general, especially because of the lack of information and concrete actions" by the institutes, Garrido writes.

With the future of the funding situation at CSIC being uncertain, Fernández adds, researchers are unable to plan their work more than a couple of months out. "This is affecting the work and the morale of the people," he says—but the delays especially threaten Ph.D. students, who have a limited amount of time to finish their projects and graduate, he adds. "The situation may eventually become dramatic if a solution doesn't come fast."

In principle, young scientists with short-term contracts have their employment guaranteed until at least the end of the year. In fact, one reason CSIC is in trouble now is that during his first term, former Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero "asked us to be really driving strongly the Spanish [science] system, so we started very ambitious programs" that included hiring, such as the Junta para la Ampliación de Estudios (JAE) fellowships for doctoral students, postdocs, and technicians, says José Pío Beltrán, who heads the office coordinating CSIC institutes in the Valencia region. When money stopped coming in during the president's second term, CSIC chose to support those people instead of firing them, which is why they now have insufficient funds to run the institutes, Beltrán explains.

The future of young researchers at CSIC has never been so uncertain. At some institutes, the available money doesn't come close to paying for all current short-term contracts, says Luis Sanz-Menéndez, director of the CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid. While group leaders can continue to pay their staffs, their inability to pay for research expenses will force some young researchers to leave. Fernando Valladares, a plant ecologist at the CSIC National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, who leads a 20-strong team, expects that "at least half" of his staff "will go within a year, for sure."

Even young researchers who feel secure for now worry what will happen when their contracts expire. "We are seeing how our contracts are running to an end and … cannot see … how we could continue here," says Fernández, who in 2011 returned from a postdoc in the United States with a 3-year JAE fellowship. "I would like to continue here and to continue fighting, because I believe that Spain does need [research] and I believe that we can contribute," Fernández says. But he says he will emigrate again "if the opportunities run out, which is very probable."


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